Remarkable Finds

What a rookie writer learned from Neil Gaiman at BEA 2013

Neil Gaiman answering questions at BEA

I recently had the pleasure of attending the 2013 BookExpo America in New York City.  Amongst the myriad of awesome presenters there, I was particularly looking forward to Neil Gaiman’s talk, which was really more of a discussion with aspiring authors.  Gaiman has been a favorite of mine for a while and his now famous 2012 University of the Arts  commencement speech, “Make good art” has consistently been an inspiration for me.

As Gaiman dove into the crazy world of how he became a writer, it became increasingly evident that this wildly successful author had gone through many of the same trials and tribulations that even the most amateur authors experience.  He never set out to become a world renowned author, rather he simply had always shared a love for reading and a passion for story-telling; perhaps the two greatest ingredients for a writer.  From the stories he told, I snagged a few tidbits of commonality that hopefully are beneficial for all aspiring authors:

  •     An insatiable hunger for reading is a writer’s best asset.
  •     On why fiction is dangerous: Fiction is dangerous because it lets you into other peoples heads and gives you empathy and shows you that the world doesn’t have to be like the one you live in…Letting people into other people’s heads is amazing and incredibly dangerous.
  •     On how to handle rejection or failure:  Two different things play out…I get things back and I’m either not good, which I do not choose to believe, or I’m just doing this wrong.  I vowed to myself to try to write things that no one could reject.  I worry now that no one will tell me I’ve written a dud short story.
  •     With 30 years of success, is there still doubt: Yes, and it hasn’t been 30 years of success. There have been things that have worked and things that haven’t.  Authors are combinations of complete arrogance and self-doubt.

I wanted to share these four points to spark thoughts, or even to provide a since of camaraderie that you are not alone as you work to create your next piece. What have you learned in your time as a writer? Please share your tips below! You may inspire a fellow writer.

 

What not to do when writing children’s books

This post has been graciously contributed by Maggie Pagratis, author of “Barnaby and his Brittle Bones” and “Yawny Bear”.

Several years ago I went on a children’s-book-making binge. Once I got the hang of it, I couldn’t stop. It was the thrill of creating that appealed to me and it became so addictive I could have popped out two books a day if illustrations didn’t take so long. The creative process provides a rush like no other.

Unfortunately, marketing does not have the same effect on me. Since that first rush, I have found that formatting books for others fulfils my need to create. I get to help authors create works of art and the authors get to do all the marketing.

During my time of children’s-book-creation addiction, I learned a few things:

  1. Forget the fancy English you learned in college
  2. Create your book illustrations in two-page spreads.
  3. Read your text out loud to avoid “bad” words which could ultimately lead you to get your book off the market quick! (Ephew the Nephew)
  4. Avoid ambiguous, overly poetic titles
  5. Never oversell an idea or stretch the truth
  6. Be fearless. Write something you want to shout from the rooftops, not something you are hesitant, embarrassed, or nervous about.

Lesson # 1:  Forget the Fancy English

Making kids feel like they know nothing rather than making them love books is a bad move.

I learned this lesson during Parent Career Week where parents were invited to discuss their profession with a class of kindergarteners. As a recently published children’s book author, I walked into my daughter’s kindergarten classroom, enthusiastically displaying my beloved shiny green, slim book: Long-legged Turtle from Arizona.

I was so proud to be sharing this moment with my five-year-old daughter and her classmates. I stood, smiled, and began reading Long-legged Turtle’s courageous utterances, which were rich and flowing off the page. My face was flushed. I was conducting a word lover’s symphony, swaying to the meter of each sentence. However, when I looked up and around the room, all I saw were blank, paralyzed little faces.

I first thought these five-year-olds were fascinated, but the more I looked, the more I realized they understood nothing of what I was reading. The more I realized they were confused, the more animated I became. I had to keep them. They were mine. One lost attention span and I was a goner, so too would be my daughter who’d have to see them not only the next day, but for the rest of the school year.

Thank God for the activity I had planned as part of my reading. It was my saving grace. There’s nothing like sinking your hands in to illustrate your own turtle. It turned out they loved Long-legged Turtle. I hugged and praised and encouraged them during this activity, succeeding here where my book had not. I had to infuse them with positivity and clarity. “Yes, you can understand a simple children’s book and yes, you must try having one read to you again sometime.”

Lesson learned.

 

About the Author:

Maggie Pagratis has published numerous children’s books and worked as an in-house writer, business interviewer and editor-in-chief of a Montreal magazine. Her writing appears on several websites and blogs. She now designs and formats print books and eBooks for independent publishers and authors. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and a Bachelor of Education. Maggie authored “Go Away Booboo! a children’s book translated into seven languages including English, Afrikaans, German, Greek, French, Italian and Spanish. For more information, visit her at www.custom-book-tique.com.

 

SiDiM…the future of DRM software

“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the landing, holding a bowl of lather on which a glass and a razor were crossed.”

This is not the first sentence of James Joyce’s modernist masterpiece Ulysses. But one day it could be. Maybe. Joyce’s book actually begins like this:

“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”

I changed just three words in that first version of Ulysses‘ opening, “stairhead”, “holding,” and “mirror,” but that might well be enough to catch a pirate, according to DRM researchers at Germany’s Darmstadt Technical University. As I have discussed previously, DRM, which stands for Digital Rights Management, is any form of software that protects the copyright of digital books. Some software prevents piracy, other software alerts those charged with stopping it.

SiDiM, the radical new DRM software being developed by the aforementioned researchers with support from the German government, would achieve the latter. By making subtle changes to a book’s text, punctuation, or formatting, SiDiM would effectively “watermark” a digital book, making that book unique and therefore identifiable to agencies tracking pirates.

Researchers maintain that this is a consumer friendly version of DRM because it wouldn’t prevent sharing a book between devices or tether it to a specific account, but the prospect of altering a book’s text, however imperceptible, makes my skin crawl. How would you know you are reading what the author intended? The process is said to be automated, so what’s the guarantee the changes are slight, or even imperceptible?

I am always curious as to how new technologies will change the way we write (did the telegraph shorten our sentences? what will the SMS do??) but this kind of software, which literally changes the text, seems comically dystopic. Certainly writers need protections if their works are to circulate digitally. Author Phillip Pullman recently pointed out how much money authors stand to lose if they aren’t compensated when their books are borrowed, and he makes a good case.

What sort of protections do we want as writers and what sort do we want as readers? There is surely a balance to be found, but my guess is that it will be less intrusive than the vision advanced by SiDiM.

Are eBooks Bad For Kids?

[Photo via Mashable]

In the eyes of many parents, there’s just something wrong with the image of their child hunched over a tablet computer, whizzing through a program with the tip of their finger. Upon closer inspection, the parent sees that they’re reading an eBook, but still the screen itself is unsettling. Haven’t a few generations of parents been taught to turn off the devices and give children a book instead? What happens to that instinct now that books are digital?

Well, it’s actually quite a tough parenting instinct to shake, it turns out. A new Pew Research Study found that 81% of parents still find that reading print books are incredibly important to a child’s development, and that 81% (again) find print books preferable to digital ones while reading with their child.

The statistics do begin to change a bit when parents are asked about selection and travel. When reading books while on a trip, 73% of parents preferred eBooks (the tablets can also double as a computer, taking up less room). Parents who valued selection also preferred eBooks by 18%.

Does this mean that eBooks are bad for children? No, it simply means that parents are still changing their own parenting habits, and that they still believe there’s value in a simple, colorful print children’s book (which there is).

Yet another study however, might not give solace to those parents itching to make the digital jump. Britain’s National Literacy Trust found that children who do most of their reading online are half as likely to be an above-average reader. It also found that “those who read only on-screen are also three times less likely to enjoy reading very much (12% vs 51%) and a third less likely to have a favorite book (59% vs 77%).”

While the favorite book statistic is more indicative of reading habits shifting away from contained long-form stories and more towards shorter, serialized works, the advanced reader statistic is a bit alarming. Does reading eBooks stunt children’s growth?

Digital Book World weighed in, and (as can be assumed from their name) was not pleased by these findings: “Some parents and educators correlate digital screens with ‘unhealthiness.’ For years, they’ve been trying to wean their kids off of TV and video games. TV and video game screens are windows into non-reading activities.  eBooks, however, are not video games or passive TV shows.”

Because of the rapidly changing nature of reading, technology, and education, it’s obvious that the jury is still out on the effect of eBooks on reading skills. However, reading is reading. It’s all about making sure that those eBooks are less of a game and more of an internal experience, allowing children to create world’s in their minds, and to think critically.

The artistic possibilities of self-publishing span far and wide

Two articles concerned with the question of the artistic possibilities of self-publishing a book caught my attention this week.

Courtesy of Redux.com

The first was a testimonial by Mark Bastable published in The Telegraph and titled “How I overcame snobbery to self-publish an e-book.” In it, Bastable gives a variably convincing account of his decision to self-publish his fourth book, after having gone the “proper” route for the last three (ie. the traditional publishing model). What I found most interesting, however, was the paragraph where he rattles off all of the decisions he had to make when he went DIY:

“So, this month I launched a novel into the e-market,” he writes, “the culmination of several months’ slog, proofing the text, writing the blurb, doing the cover design (or, actually, paying someone to), getting the internal text layout right (or, actually, paying someone to), developing and launching a website (or, actually – yeah, that too). All the stuff that a publisher used to do, the e-author has to do for himself. Or pay someone to.”

Whew. It’s always sobering to see a list like that in print and be reminded of the immense amount of work self-publishing requires. But Bastable makes the case for the silver lining: message control. From the writing, to the editing, to the marketing, you’re in the driver’s seat, and you get to call the shots.

I found an inspiring echo to this book talk in a piece by Jason Boogon Galleycat extolling the virtues of Shane Carruth’s excellent 2013 indie sci-fi film Upstream Color. Produced entirely outside of the Hollywood system and released on a wide range of streaming platforms at about the same time it hit theaters, Upstream Color received widespread acclaim, cementing Carruth’s position as an indie auteur. But is this a stepping stone for blockbuster success? Probably not. Boog nails it, I think, when he goes on to write about how films like this can only exist outside the normal system of production:

“Writers spend too much time arguing about the goldmine potential of self-publishing. When we talk about indie books, why does money dominate the conversation? Instead, we should worry about the artistic freedom that creators like Shane Carruth have found by taking the DIY route.”

I like what Bastable was saying about having total (anxiety inducing) control over your book and it’s presentation, but what about the artistic space that emerges without the confines of the publishing industry? That’s what I’m looking forward seeing discussed. So, hat tip to Jason Boog and Simon Carruth for getting us going.

 

How to stay fresh when writing becomes work

When you do something professionally, whether it’s a full time gig that pays the bills or part-time work to get that walking-around money, it can become monotonous. To be honest, the odds are that it will.

In some cases, that monotony could be a welcome development. I’ve worked some pretty unfulfilling jobs where routine has provided a welcome refuge. But if you are lucky enough to be financially compensated for doing something you love, the tedium that comes from repetition is something you really have to watch out for and guard against.

I find writing to be fulfilling work, personally and professionally, and I manage a good balance of writing for myself and writing for others (now largely readers on the internet) — writing I’m compensated for and writing I’m not — but there have certainly been times when that balance has felt askew and, as a result, writing becomes not much more than work.

What to do in a situation like this? How can a writer keep their work fresh and prevent burnout? Here are three practices I’ve found that help me keep my writing personally relevant and moving in new directions.

Keeping a journal: I know it sounds like an assignment from your high school English teacher, but keeping a journal (the pen and paper kind) has allowed me an entirely reflective space for my writing. Although I write on the web and enjoy writing to be read, the opposite arrangement helps me stay sane.

Using Twitter: I thought Twitter was a pretty vapid platform initially. I mean 140 characters? Micro-blogging? My attention span is short enough as is! But the more time I spend on Twitter, the more interesting I think it is. It’s basically a super social constraint-based writing club that demands clarity and brevity and encourages experimentation.

Taking time off(line): This one is sort of the crux, but also a bit a catch-all: I write better for the internet when I take time away from it. It’s easy to get comfortable in an echo chamber, but echoes don’t make for fresh ideas. Whether it’s reading or cooking or traveling when I can, I tend to bring something back to my work when I give myself a break from the net (whatever form that takes).

Some of these things might work for you, some might not. You’ve probably got similar suggestions so let me know in the comments!

Picture.com is here!

Today, Lulu launched Picture.com, a better way to celebrate your memories with custom photo books and calendars. Lulu has always listened to our customers and we strive to provide the very best products to meet your needs. Well, with Picture.com we did just that. Picture.com is the result of feedback from thousands of customers looking for a fun, easy, and unique way to celebrate life’s most memorable experiences.

With a camera in every purse and pocket, taking pictures is as natural as making a call, checking the weather and updating your status. Great pictures are being captured all the time, for a thousand different unique and memorable reasons. With such a volume of life’s moments being recorded everyday, you now have a unique, collaborative and easy way to organize, preserve and share your pictures and relive those memories.

And don’t worry, Lulu.com users…Lulu Studio isn’t going anywhere. We’ll continue to offer Lulu Studio for those folks who want to sell photo books and calendars for fundraising, charities, profit, etc., including options that let you track revenue and promote your creative work. Picture.com is all about creating unique gifts for friends and loved ones and keepsakes for yourself. Thanks to the feedback we’ve received, we’ve added collaborative features that give you the ability to invite friends and family to share photos with each other and build one of a kind photo books and calendars through a whole new design tool focused on fast, easy creation.

So give Picture.com a try, and let us know what you think. Feel free to like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or check out our Pinterest page — we’ll be sharing ideas and inspiration often. We’re always looking for new ideas and ways to help you celebrate life’s most cherished memories, and the best insights always come from you. Have fun!

eBooks gaining ground but, printed books remain number one

Courtesy of Typedesk.com

When eBooks really started to take off around three years ago, their success was accompanied by the typical doomy, gloomy apocalyptic hand-wringing about the future of the printed book. The thinking then was that every winner has to have a loser, and with a winner this big (British sales for consumer eBook fiction and non-fiction were up 366% in 2011!!) a big dive was predicted. It’s funny to think, just three years down the line, that people were sure the printed book was on the way out. Perhaps it was just a testament to the popularity and exciting potential of eBook technology, perhaps it was something closer to a silly panic. Either way, the numbers from last year seem to point to a happy, mutually beneficial coexistence, which is good news for all parties involved.

According to Britain’s Publisher’s Association, total book sales rose 4% last fiscal year, and while print still makes up the majority of sales, its small 1% sales slip was more than made up for by a 66% gain in the digital realm. As The Telegraph points out, that number is way down from the previous year’s 366% surge. “There is an inevitable slowdown going on,” said [Richard] Mollet [chief executive of the Publisher's association]. “You expect that with any new technology but there is still very healthy growth.”

It seems like this type of evening out is to be expected. Not only that, it’s probably a healthy sign that eBooks are becoming less gimmicky and finding their way into normalized reading culture. As Gaby Wood points out, “Digital books are a complement to, not a replacement for, physical books. Some publishers now offer a hardback with an eBook as a package, since an eBook is easier to carry around but a hardback is what you want to own, and have on your shelf.” And sales data is starting to reflect this cooperative nature in comforting ways. When print publishers don’t have to worry about another source of lost funds (the fabled flight to eBooks!) and bibliophiles are growing more and more aware of the advantages both formats hold, we the readers (and we the customers!) win.

Self-publishing gaining ground in the academics

[Graphic: Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle of Higher Education]

While I don’t typically pay a lot of attention to academic publishing, I recently ran across a very interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on (mostly) young academics taking advantage of the new opportunities afforded to them by recent developments in self-publishing.The piece focuses on Clay Spinuzzi, a professor of rhetoric and writing at the University of Texas at Austin, who decided to self-publish his third book Topsight: A Guide to Studying, Diagnosing, and Fixing Information Flow in Organizations. The article goes on to point out that there are a lot of common sense  reasons for the decision. By spending just “a couple of thousand dollars in freelance graphic design and copy-editing Spinuzzi will make back his financial investment after 300 copies are sold” due to the super high rate of royalties Amazon guarantees (about $7 a digital copy). Selling 1,500 copies will net Spinuzzi $10,000, the article points out. If he sold 15,000, a rare, but not entirely inconceivable number, he could walk away with more than$100,000.

These numbers are interesting, and Amazon’s royalty arrangement could pay off big given the right product, and this is where I think the story is really interesting. Spinuzzi says he doesn’t consider independent publishing a replacement for the traditional academic press. In fact, his next book will be published by one. Instead, he sees digital self-publication as “part of a larger ecosystem” and “a natural outgrowth of other unvetted work,” such as scholarly blogging and social media.In other words, digital publishing allows him a level of freedom (and a margin of profit) traditional academic publishing can’t, but it is also helping to create a new and, finally, viable type of writing. It’s allowing authors like Spinuzzi to write rigorous, researched books that have a popular appeal but carry academia’s mark of approval.

As we’ve seen with high profile Kickstarter campaigns over the last few months, studios and publisher’s are often conservative in their appraisal of a work’s appeal, and it’s probably just a matter of time before an author sees similar success (David Mamet is giving it an early shot according to The New York Times). Third-way options like self-publishing could be just the ticket to help  promote and distribute this type of new and refreshing work.

Modern Thought Leadership: three absolute must-have’s

 Modern Thought-Leadership: It doesn’t happen overnight

With the ever-expanding world of social media marketing influence, the concept of the modern day “thought-leader” has not only experienced resurgence, it has also enjoyed an expanded application of what thought-leadership is and can be.  Just last week, I had the opportunity to work with the awesome team at Prezi to create a kind of journey for modern day thought-leader.  Out of this research developed a pathway and three key, absolute must-have drivers:

  • Passion and Drive – a characteristic all thought-leaders share.  Not only do they have a new idea or way of thinking about something, they all posses an avalanche-like drive to share this idea with the masses.  It is what keeps them awake at night, what makes them attend every conference, present at every forum, and write every blog post.  You must have passion for the subject matter.  Want some inspiration?  Check out any TEDtalk.
  • Innovative Use of Tools – every influencer/thought-leader I’ve ever run across from Deepak Chopra to Guy Kawasaki have all utilized creative ways to spread their knowledge with new audiences.  This is now easier than ever in that anyone with an imagination and access to the web can find an audience.  Social media outlets provide ever-inventive opportunities for infinite sharing and connection.
  • Care about the Audience – yes, meeting your audience face-to-face after a presentation matters, book signings matter, interactive Q&A sessions matter.  In other words, the audience matters (A LOT).  The most successful thought-leaders realize this fact and take great care to not only reach out to but also elicit feedback from their audiences.

These three points just begin to scratch the surface of the path to thought-leadership but, truthfully influencers and innovators can come from anywhere…so, STAY MOTIVATED AND SHARE YOUR IDEAS! (also, checking out some of the steps summarized in the thought-leadership Prezi won’t hurt either.

What does modern-day thought-leadership mean to you?  How are you spreading your ideas?