Monday, February 23, 2009

The Celebrity Life

This past weekend I did my first book signing. As I completely sold out my stock in under three hours, I guess you could call it an unqualified success, but it wasn’t all down to my careful planning and/or foresight.

Mainly, I was lucky in about three different ways. It was a lovely spring morning, and that brought a lot of people out. The bookstore manager, after a few trial and error attempts, put me in a location to die for (right at the top of the stairs so no one coming up to the top floor could possibly miss me, and right next to the very, very popular—just try to get a table—coffee shop). And there was another signing going on downstairs at the same time, which brought in additional people (I know for a fact that got me at least one additional sale).

So I’m trying not to let this go to my head; if I do another signing, it could just as well be on a miserable day in a deserted book store with me sitting at a table in the back by the Graphic Novels section. But at least I know a successful signing is possible.

The things I did right:

I went to the local paper about three weeks prior to the event and offered them the opportunity of interviewing me. They were very good about it and held off publishing the article until the day before the signing. Nearly half of the people who bought a book said they had heard about me in the newspaper.

I made a poster with my name, book name, photos of both and the large title “Local Author” on it. I printed out one but, after the bookstore manager saw it, she made another copy, put them both in A4 display frames and set one on either side of me on the table. She also took my books off of the display rack (about 15 feet away) and put them on the table as well. This proved the winning combination: anyone going to the second floor to browse for a book or get a cup of tea could not avoid seeing me; the colourful posters and pile of books told them right away who I was and why I was there; if they sat in the cafĂ© for any length of time, many of them became interested in what I was doing and stopped by as they were leaving.

So I got good press and good location, but I still could have blown it. The final key is to smile, make eye contact and chat to people even if they just stop by for a quick look (only one person who stopped at my table did not buy a book, and I gave her a business card with my web site address on it; you never know, she might become interested later). If you’re friendly, people will generally be friendly back; it was a bookstore, not a back street pub, the people were predisposed to buy books and were, overall, pleasant, so there was no need to be shy.

Other items that were not make-or-break but were nonetheless important included bringing a bottle of water, two pens and some mints. My business cards, while not necessary, also came in handy and I gave out almost all of them. I also wore my “Postcards From Across the Pond” tee shirt (what, you don’t have one?) but I don’t think anyone noticed.

The last item, but one I think really helped in a number of ways, was my AlphaSmart Neo. Sitting at a table with people milling around you can make you feel awkward, but if you have something to do, it helps you relax. I found typing into the Neo also reinforced the notion that I was, actually, a writer. While no one came over to ask what the cunning little device was (I get that a lot in pubs) I think it aroused some curiosity, and at the very least, it acted as an electronic security blanket.

If I had it to do over again, what would I do different? Not much. I might print off more than one poster, and bring my camera (I had to call my wife and ask her to come down and take a photo of me) but otherwise, I think I came across as a real, professional writer doing a real, professional writerly-type thing.

And only one lady came to my table to ask me where the toilets were.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Whitter On

You have the right to remain silent

In the event that you live in a cave somewhere and communicate by carving messages on stone tables, or use the Internet exclusively for downloading porn, you may not be aware of the Times On Line article that has the blogshpere and its resident bloglodites in a tizzy.

Here is my USA Today-esque bullet-point summary:

     - The Ignition: The Times on Line wrote an article
     - The Bad Thing: Said article lifted quotes out of context and without permission or link-credit to the author, Miss Diva
     - The Aggrieved: Miss Diva is upset, and rightly so
     - The Irony: The Times on Line is staffed by professional journalists, who reportedly look down upon bloggers as unprofessional, yet they engaged in egregiously unprofessional and unethical behavior themselves.
     - The Action: Link to the Times on Line article, link to Miss Diva and write a post to “tell the world that you and your writing and your blog deserve respect." (credit: Miss Diva: "Write on! Respect the blog"
     - The Point: To start a revolution demanding respect for bloggers
     - The Result: High profile for a shoddy Times on Line article (and Miss Diva) and a great subject for bloggers to get their knickers in a knot over.

I realize the above sounds rather flippant, but that's just what I do. For the record, I do believe Miss Diva has every right to feel aggrieved and her response is admirable. I do believe the Times on Line behaved unprofessionally and unscrupulously. And I do believe that bloggers are entitled to the respect they deserve. But I do not believe that bloggers necessarily deserve respect.

That’s a subtle difference, but an important one, so pay attention.

The first responses I saw to this brouhaha had me convinced they were coming confiscate our keyboards and legislate away our bandwidth. Curious, I followed the links.

The offending article, which I will not compliment with a link, is simply a lengthy, rambling advertisement for a book (which one might suspect is equally long and rambling) and deserved little attention. Instead, by behaving unprofessionally and unethically, they got a lot. So what are we to learn from this except that pissing people off is a good marketing strategy?

The article, in case you’re interested, simply poses the controversial notion that maybe too much blogging and/or revealing too much in your blog might not be good for you. Whoa! Stop the presses! On the ground-breaking revelation scale, they might as well have said that having unprotected sex with random strangers probably isn’t the best use of your leisure time. Blogging doesn't require you to buy drinks, and is less likely to result in a worrying rash, or late night, drunken phone calls demanding to know why you never return their messages followed by unnerving accounts of weeing on a stick and what it revealed.

I think everyone who has the notion ought to blog. It's free, it’s easy and, unless you live in a country run by a despot, it’s legal. It will also give you satisfaction in ways you never expected. Sure you run the risk of blog-addition but, as addictions go, you’re better off with that than, say, a three hundred dollar a day cocaine habit. I don’t know of anyone who has come to after a night of enthusiastic blogging to find they’ve traded their living room furniture for an eight-ball.

So have at it, just don’t anticipate automatic respect; it doesn’t come as part of the package like all those annoying Blogger widgets.

Miss Diva, herself, appears to agree with me. What she says is bloggers “…should demand the respect that their traffic, their influence and their talent commands.” I read this as: good blogs deserve respect. The attention of the billions of people surfing through cyberspace needs to be earned. This happens through good writing. Good writing takes practice. And practice is best conducted in private.

Just because you can post every word you write doesn’t mean you ought to. There are many fine blogs out there, but some (not yours, surely) make me long for the days when people used to write their innermost thoughts in notebooks and hide them in their sock drawer. If professional journalist do not respect bloggers, it is quite likely because the vast majority of bloggers do not deserve respect.

Miss Diva says if you put "Blogs Ruin Journalism" into Google you’ll receive 3,900,000 hits. I tried that and got exactly ten, and most were from blogs linked to Miss Diva. When I tried it without the quotes, I got 614,000. On the other hand, I got 32,500,000 hits by entering “Big tits are bad” and 121,600,000 for “See me naked.” So what are we to learn from this? Nothing, really, except that “Big Tits are Bad” would make a wicked title for a blog post.

But back to the professional journalist; even if they really do believe blogging is ruining journalism, can you blame them for feeling that way? Suppose you were a professional housepainter. That’s what you trained for and take pride in and it’s how you earn the money to support you and your family. Now suddenly, everyone on earth has taken such an interest in house painting they are all going around painting each other’s houses for free. Wouldn’t you circle the wagons? Wouldn’t you point out the ones who, given the results of their passion, should maybe take up a different hobby?

So I can’t really blame the journalists for feeling that way, but I don’t want to hand them any more ammunition, either.

Let’s use me as an example (because I’m all I have and I’m not likely to file a lawsuit against myself). I have been keeping a written diary since I was 13 years old. This was back when long distance communication was limited to smoke signals. As soon as the Internet came along, I started a web journal. I now have a published book, two blogs, a web site and I guest blog on about half a dozen other sites. But I also continue to keep a private journal. This is because I understand that many of my inner thought do not deserve an audience (you should thank me for this, really). In my private journal, I don't have to think about content, form or my audience; I am free to experiment without worrying about criticism. My private journal is batting practice, and I did a lot of it before I inflicted my writing on the wider world.

Now, I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t blog; I’m just saying that, if you’re looking for respect, you might want to put off the public blog for a bit and start by keeping a written journal that you hide in your sock drawer where the kids won't find it. Then, after you’ve put in some meaningful batting practice, the World Wide Web will be much more grateful when you do appear, and in the meantime it will remain less cluttered and the Internet can go about doing what it was meant for: downloading porn.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Ant and the Grasshopper

Has anyone heard about the snowstorm in Britain? No? Okay, let me tell you about it.

Actually, I was going to give it a miss, especially as I had already mentioned it in my Anglotopia column, but as this is the biggest atmospheric anomaly to hit the UK in ten years, I thought I’d continue exploring the angle I broached there, namely the fact that Britain was caught, once again, with its pants down.

Now, I have often criticized my adopted country for having the national equivalent of a nervous breakdown at the sight of falling leaves, seizures when there’s a heavy frost and fainting from heatstroke if the temperature hits 85 degrees. But this time, I’m letting them off the hook; yes, the country crumbled into chaos, but there wasn’t much anyone could have done about it.

This wasn’t a case of the ant storing up provisions while the grasshopper idled about selling peerages and engaging in illegal wars, this was a case of a herd of Welsh Mountain sheep accidentally roaming into a tea shop; it’s not something you can foretell or prepare for.

Sure, they knew it was coming a few days ago (the snow, not the sheep), but they didn’t know about it last October. And even if they did, what were they supposed to do? Cover the M25 with a tarp? Wrap the rail lines in thermal blankets? Mandate a “Snow, Newton's Laws of Motion and how they pertain to you” test, and force anyone who failed it to exchange their driving license for a pair of Government issued Wellington boots?

No, the only thing you can do in a situation like this is hunker down and take a snow day, which is what a lot of us did. (What? You went to work? Sucks being you, eh?) Why would anyone believe this nation could cope with something like this when no one even owns a snow shovel and you can’t buy all-season radials even if you knew what they were? Driving in snow is a specialist skill honed over time, not something you have a crack at every decade or so. That’s like being handed the controls of an Airbus-330 and being told, “You did an hour in a simulator ten years ago, so I expect you remember how all this works.”

When a snowstorm hits Georgia, no one berates them for not having the foresight to order 17 million plows from Minnesota, or ship in 6 million cubic tons of road salt from Wisconsin. No, we just watch the film clips on the evening news showing what happens when 8 million people who have never seen snow before take to the highways in a white-out; it’s great entertainment.

And it was great fun watching the weather news here, though there weren’t as many spectacular accidents. The British roads, being meandering, narrow and crowded, don’t favor imbeciles in pick-up trucks who believe 4-wheel drive means “invincible” and, instead, tend to slowly, almost sedately, grind to a complete standstill. So the news was practically devoid of interesting traffic footage, but there was no shortage of local reporters out and about filming a nation of normally staid individuals who seem to go off their nut at the sight of snow.

So Britain is coping as well as can be expected for a semi-tropical country (hey, compared to where I come from it is) in the grips of an extraordinary weather pattern. And extraordinary it is; generally, if it snows at all, it sprinkles about half an inch that melts by noon. This time, it began snowing on Sunday. It is now Thursday and, in many locations, it is still snowing.

For me, unfortunately, the snow has stopped. My town received only a few inches but Surrey, where I am bussing to this week, got over a foot (hence my snow days). We’re all done digging out now and the pristine snow that held so many Britons in thrall on Monday now lies in heaps by the roadsides, turning into gray slush.

It was all very exciting while it lasted, but what we need now is a return to normal weather, with temperatures in the 40s and the snow just a memory, so we can get back to the business at hand, namely slagging off Britain for not being able to cope with frost or falling leaves.

Addendum: 7 February 2009

There is a "tag" going around BlogWorld that goes like this: Go to your photos folders, take the fourth photo from the fourth folder, post it and explain it. Then tag four others to do the same.

I'm a curmudgeon, and I don't do tags or memes but I did have a look and what I found was so appropriate, I had to post it.

This photo was taken exactly 9 years ago - 5 February 2000. It is just a typical Upstate New York morning after yet another snowstorm. It was taken at 10:46 AM, so this must have been a Saturday. At least I didn't have to dig out and drive to work that day.