Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Philistines on Their Platforms

In my college Latin class I was once called on to translate a phrase which I rendered (literally) as, "The names of the stupid we see written on the walls." Better understood and less literal as, "stupid people advertise."

The quip was made by some Roman wit who was, of course, talking about the graffiti of his day (not the artsy/protest Banksy stuff but the "Lucius Septimus was here" type). I have forgotten my Latin words but I not the idea, and it has been recurring to me often lately as I consider the uses now being made of social media and the internet by the tumbling and roiling publishing industry.

Even if you have not been making a special study of what's going on with publishing, as I have recently had to do, no one who reads could avoid some sense of how it's all different now. What you may not have realized is that it goes beyond the shake-up of e-books. Those seem to everybody - at least everybody not invested in the old model - to be a great development. Beyond e-books, however, there are many different models for self-publishing - print on demand, hybrid deals where a literary agency and a writer team up and share the risks and rewards and other schemes for publishing that are popping up like mushrooms.

I think all of this is really great for the writing and the reading public. Let a thousand flowers bloom, and all of that. There is, however, at least one appalling consequence: the requirement that writers will build and maintain "a platform" from which they will promote their "brand" at every opportunity.

Like so much marketing, you may not even have realized that it is being done to you, but it is and it seems that all writers, even the best known, are being required to develop a commoditized version of themselves for the internet. It's like a command has gone forth, one especially hard on all those who can publish a book on their own but who who are also left to market it alone: leave no social network un-infiltrated.

I am not talking here about the connections that people have been making for years now based on common interests, or about those with an honest penchant for twittering or blogging. You know who you are - you write because you have something to say or someone you want to talk to and you don't expect to get paid. I am also not talking about websites created for fans who want a place to to read more about a book or to contact its writer or even order something. That's simply good service and a natural outgrowth of the admiration of readers. I am talking about calculated, venal, self-promotion, that turns the almost every kind of contact made possible by the internet into one with an agenda that's more tawdry than secret.

Full Disclosure

Of course I have been considering all this because I have a manuscript on offer. I sent it around to 15 or 20 agents this spring and got "no thanks" or silence from all of them. I would have preferred a different result, of course, but I was prepared for a lot of rejection and it was useful by way of education. I am going to revise, then I'll send it out for another round. If it doesn't get picked up by an agent and go the way of a traditional book, I will self-publish it one day. (More on that below). It was also useful because it was in this process that I learned about what's happening in the publishing business today - including this notion of "platform."

Babe in the woods that I was, the first mention I heard of it was in this video of an interview by a literary agent with a best-selling author and "lifecoach" about the author's great and successful platform building. (Don't watch it now - it's long, but I hope you will watch it later and let me know what you thought). The agent, who has a nice website and made a lot of sense generally (or so I thought at the time), urged hopeful authors to emulate the lifecoach by building up as large an internet following as possible. I recognized the author as a tacky huckster but the agent was clearly bright and it sounded like good advice. So, (and this feels like a confession) I went out immediately and started a twitter account - the beginning of my own platform.(This little blog hardly counts for what are probably obvious reasons). (Also, full disclosure - this agent subsequently rejected my book).

After two months on Twitter, my platform is no more than a spar from a broken oar and I won't be making any directed efforts to build it up. There is good in Twitter. It has been fun to follow some of my favorite writers, (Neil Gaiman is a good Twitterer) and other interesting or amusing people. The sad part is all the grasping for attention that underlies so much of what goes on there. The followers I have picked up are a few friends and a handful of voracious platform builders. One of my followers (whom I dutifully followed) tweets again and again about his "five-star reviews" on Amazon for his self-published e-memoir. (Of course, I wouldn't touch that with a barge pole, which gives you an idea of how effective this kind of marketing effort is). My heart went out to him recently though, when he admitted that promoting his book had turned out to be more work than writing it had been. Poor thing.

When authors were vetted and cared for by agents and publishing houses in those pre-internet days, a writer could maintain a gentlemanly distance from the smear of commerce. No more. Even the famous seem expected to pitch in and sell books. For the self-published, their every public internet move is often calculated to promote themselves and their products. They are like awful guests at a cocktail party pursuing the rest of us with their business cards, slipping them into pockets and comment boxes ("here's a link to my YA mystery thriller") at every opportunity.

I get it that book publishing has ever been a commercial enterprise and someone has always had to shill for books if anyone (including the writer) was going to make a living. I can practically hear the agents and editors, "It's a marketplace. I have a mortgage to pay. If you don't like that you can go sit on your pile of unsold books under your tree and read The Atlantic.

But a platform is a crass sort of place to occupy at best and a soul destroying one at worst. When I read about a writer talking about herself as a "brand," and being celebrated for it, I feel like we must be nearing the end of days. (I found these links via Twitter BTW).

I read the other day that John Milton made a total of ten pounds for the publication of Paradise Lost. How many pounds would it have taken to get him to write his name on the walls or to go out on a marketing platform?

See you around the Internet. I promise not to try to sell you anything. Well, not to try very hard at least.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Which Character Would You Be In the WIzard of Oz?

Shackleton's fifth grade class presented it last night. When I found out they were putting it on I told him he ought to be a flying monkey." He said, "Why does everybody say that?"

Actually, he was eventually cast as the coroner. You remember: (sing it in your best Munchkin voice!) "As coroner I must aver I thoroughly examined her, and she's not merely dead, she's really quite sincerely dead."

Shack had curlicue sideburns and wore a hat with a wide brim and a long brown coat. It was too dark in the theater to take pictures - we actually got to use the town theater (which had upholstered chairs and air conditioning, more than making up for the poor photo situation). Here he is having a post-performance creemee:

I think he stole the show, but that's just me, and his teacher, and his former teacher and, like, ten other people talking.

There's actually a web page of memorable quotations from the Wizard of Oz. (Oh, internet, you have anticipated my every musing!). My favorite:

Auntie Em: Now you go feed those hogs before they worry themselves into anemia!

I am afraid there would only be one role for me in the show and you've probably guessed it..

Definitely, Glinda.

That's my motto! (We've got another blog post coming with helpful tips on how to tell good people from bad people in movies and stories, stay tuned!)
How about you? Where would the casting director put you?

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Hummingbird Hijinks! World's Dullest Wildlife Video Right Here!

Not only dull, but also inept. If you endure it you'll find that it ends when I saw I am only pausing, but don't worry, you didn't miss anything. Maisy appears offstage with her (really annoying) narration.

Sooo, it is a beautiful day here in Vermont. I was administering mildew killers of various sorts to the deck in the early hours and have many other outdoor tasks to do, but I just had to stop and take in all this hummingbird action. It was almost scary. They were practically strafing me. OK, so they weigh as much as a penny but close up they are disconcertingly bee-like.

On that note, I must extract Shack from the basement where he has been playing Skyrim on XBox since it arrived three days ago. I dragged him up long enough to eat a peanut butter sandwich a few minutes ago and he was bouncing off the walls because he had achieved "so much iron." Apparently that's an achievement in Skyrim. It was a little chilling. (Remember what happened to Gollum?)

If you decide to brave the video, keep your eyes open for the clever method I employed to fasten the bird feeder hanger to the deck post.

Bon weekend, tout le monde!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Just Hello, And Another Tip

Hey All -

A day at home and another "to do" list left undone. I have, however, accomplished scanning a photo that I found last night of the Understudy at age three. (Today's banner - had to share).

And, since I showed up here I feel obliged to make myself just a bit useful. So I am sharing the video for a song that made it's way into my iTunes library as part of an David Gray album purchase a year or so ago. (Album = Draw the Line). It was a deep track, not one I was looking for or knew anything about but it caught my ear and recently I investigated it a little and learned that the other voice (it's a duet) was none other than Annie Lennox. No wonder the song floated to the top.

The album is great and this song is a highlight. I and at least one friend from high school will be at David Gray's concert in Vermont in July and I am nurturing a secret hope that Annie L. will decide to vacation here just then and will join him on stage for this. Are you listening Annie and David? In any case, I hope you will listen and that it will improve your world a little. Off to do laundry.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Lucky Bird

Yesterday I went out early in the morning to buy groceries. Can you believe that just a minute into my drive a black cat - coal black, mind you - no white paws or forehead blaze to drain off some of its bad luck, raced across the road right in front of me? No damage to the cat, but I was the first car through after she passed. There was no intercessory person to pass before me, to bear the brunt. I had seen the self-same cat the day before and had been relieved when it dodged right as I approached, thus not crossing my path. But no such luck yesterday. So, there I was, was facing an entire day - Mother's Day, no less - marked by black cat crossing right around the time the sun came up.

All right. The Understudy brought me cinnamon rolls when I woke up from the morning nap I had to take as a result of getting up so early. That was good. The Polaroid pictures that the kids and I took, however, at three dollars a piece, were almost a total loss - and I thought about that cat. (My favorite is the banner today). I worried a little all day. To wit: as I was mowing the lawn at the new house last night for the first time - a "lawn" that consists of a cliff joined to an incongruously rocky swamp - I worried that I might cut my foot off trying to wrestle our ancient push mower. (Maybe the bad luck is that 15 years after graduating from law school I still have to wrangle lawn mowers up hills?)

Today, however, a little red-breasted bird flashed by the front of the car as I was driving the kids to school. It made a nice acrobatic little flourish as it skirted my grill. In my own susceptible mind, I decided this must presage good luck. It is a day off (I work part time, which is why I can't afford to have someone else cut the grass on the cliff and in the swamp). When I got back to the house with a list in my head of a million things to do, I sat down in front of the TV to gulp a bowl of cereal before I started on the list. Driven from the morning news show by a man who was vacuuming a cat (I am not making that up - the cat was fat and not black), I landed on our free trial of HBO. Woody Allen's 2010 movie "Midnight in Paris" was just starting - as in, opening montage of Paris scenes.

Thank you red-breasted bird.

I had seen the reviews, which were good and which had made me want to see it, et voila! It stars Owen Wilson who is always so winning, and also Paris. Didn't Tina Fey say it best? "I want to go to there."

Even better for me is that the movie is about (partly) the 1920s. Allen's sketches of Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Dali, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, are made with very broad strokes - of necessity I expect, given that most Americans can't find the U.S. on a world map that isn't labled, much less do they have any idea about Dali and T.S. Eliot, but I was grateful to see them at all. As a few of you know I wrote a book (which is laying around in a great lump at the moment) which features time travel and life in England in the 1920s. So I was just thrumming along with the Wilson character. His dilemma is whether he should remain in Paris in the 20s - a time to which he is magically transported by the most gorgeous 1920s automobile I have ever seen. And of course Woody Allen always photographs his beloved cities so beautifully.

So, there you have it. A black cat undone and the promise of a red-breasted bird fulfilled. I guess today is the day to hang some pictures and set up the heating oil and propane contract for the new house. Fingers crossed.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Metaphysical Proof of Divine Love

Sunday morning on the farm.

Rolled out of bed to this:

Purple martins have actually chosen to renew their lease at our crappy purple martin house, (despite the fact that the sparrows who squatted in it in past years left it a mess and though it is listing in what must be a disconcerting fashion for the chicks). Purple martins flitted around me, Snow White fashion, while I took this picture. (OK. They were probably doing this because they were annoyed and wished I would back off, but I am in a Snow White frame of mind so I am going with that interpretation).

Whusband's flowering plum trees - also listing and not very healthy looking during most of the year - are now actually flowering.


I opened this bag of LaVazza, fresh from the Italian grocery store in Montreal. The smell of beautifully roasted beautiful coffee beans was almost enough to bring tears to my eyes. Then I ground some of them and made coffee. Transports.

Happy first Sunday in May to you all.

Friday, May 04, 2012

And While We're On the Subject

I saw this guy, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, for the first time ever on the Grammys back in February. He was tall and balding and wearing a brown wrinkled suit and he thanked the people of Eau Claire, Wisconsin for his Grammy. It was love at first sight.

So, I checked out his music, belatedly, at last.

I now have an iTunes playlist called "Arty" featuring this and several other Bon Iver songs. When this one comes on, it stops me, whatever I am doing. I don't know what "Holocene" means and I can't understand the lyrics other than "I was not magnificent" but this music goes right through me.

Let me know what you think.

Friday Night Family Fun

All of us together back at the Last House for the first time in a couple of weeks. Shackleton just came down stairs and asked for $10 for a Minecraft upgrade. Whusband, sensing a teachable moment, offers cash if Shack will read three Aesop's fables aloud. Much groaning from Shack.

Whusband administers high culture like an innoculation and it is generally received that way by the kids. The Understudy says classical music will always remind her of being cold and hungry because Whusband plays it for hours while I'm at work. He also refuses to turn up the heat and the kids hardly ever like the food he has on offer. (As soon as I walk in the door, crank up the thermostat and boil spaghetti).

The first fable on the programme tonight involves a "soldier out collecting faggots." I bite my tongue. Shack laughs. Whusband tells him that he is being vulgar. The next features "a vain girl wearing dimity at a carnival." (I kind of missed the instructive kicker on both of them and missed the third one altogether.) I am pretty sure the morals of the stories were wasted on Shack too, but he was still snickering about the soldier when he asked me how much money I have in my Paypal account.

I am going to look up "dimity." It rings a bell from some long-ago read Thomas Hardy novel. Mayor of Casterbridge? Maybe time to read that again. Then I will get Shack his Minecraft upgrade.

A dimity bustle, 1881

So you don't die of curiosity: "Dimity is a lightweight, sheer cotton fabric having at least two warp threads thrown into relief to form fine cords. It is a cloth commonly employed for bed upholstery and curtains, and usually white, though sometimes a pattern is printed on it in colors. It is stout in texture, and woven in raised patterns. Originally dimity was made of silk or wool, but since the 18th century it has been woven almost exclusively of cotton.")

Things could be worse. I don't have to wear dimity or a bustle for starters and we're going to the indoor water park tomorrow.

Bon weekend tout le monde!