Saturday, September 11, 2010
Anatomy of a Hit
Scott D. Parker
On the adult alternative digital music channel the other day, the new Train song, "Hey, Soul Sister," played. It's a good tune, catchy melody, and a chorus that stays in the brain long after you've heard the song. I am not ashamed to admit that, when I first heard this new song, I realized it had been a number of years since I had heard a Train song. I wondered what they had been up to since 2001.
But less than an hour later on the same channel, an earlier Train hit, "Drops of Jupiter," was broadcast. Hearing the two songs close to each other helped me realize how similar the two songs are. In my short bout of research to discover what Train had been doing since "Drops of Jupiter" was a hit, I learned that they had recorded a few albums and had taken a hiatus. In listening to the tracks of the other albums, the sound of the band is essentially the same.
Which brought up the obvious question: how did "Hey, Soul Sister" become The Hit where the half dozen other contenders that could have had success but didn't?
The same concept applies to books as well. Why did Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code strike such a magnificent chord where Angels and Demons (before) and The Lost Symbol (after) didn't? Why did John Grisham's The Firm take off and carve out a new sub-genre (Scott Turow aside)? Ditto for the Twilight Saga.
Is it the vicissitudes of the buying public? Is it timing? Or is it the creator trying so hard to duplicate what was a proven hit that they stop trying to be original?
What do you think?
Friday, September 10, 2010
Tonight (sans camera since I didn't charge the batteries, but take my word for it, I was there), I attended the (re)opening party of the Edinburgh Bookshop. The bookshop – a fully functioning independent – grew from the Children's Bookstore in Edinburgh and is run by the not only knowledgeable but quite fearsome (in the best sense) Vanessa, a woman with the kind of drive and vision to truly run an independent. I have been in to the store a few times during visits to Edinburgh and have been impressed as a customer and an author. They make no promises to stock, but you get the impression that Vanessa and her staff are really paying attention and that if they don't stock a title they probably have a reason.
There are not a huge number of indy bookstores in Scotland. Or at least not many that seem to have crossed my path (if you are or you know a Scots indy, let me know in the comments). Those that we do have, I try to support as much as possible because I am a believer in the power of booksellers – be they passionate independent or well-informed chain – and think that, along with music stores, the bookstore is one of those places we truly need as consumers* in a real and physical sense.
Why? Because books – and often music – are commodities that can still be sold on the basis of passionate pushers. One of the joys of bookselling (and I've been involved in the front lines of the trade for close to ten years now although I don't mention my employer just in case I say something as a writer to embarras them!) is that you watch other people discovering books. The apparently idle banter between bookseller and customer creates passionate consumers, sometimes every bit as passionate as the pushers.
The first time I went into the Edinburgh bookshop I encountered a kind of passion and expertise I hadn't seen in a while. This was before I let them know of my status as “published author”. Now when I'm in the city, if I can I pop my head in the door. Because I felt welcome, because they made me want to support them. Its the same with a Dunkeld independent whom I will always hold in regard as they were the ones who sold my book to Rab C Nesbitt's “wife”, Elaine C Smith and earned me a mention in her books of the year for the Glasgow Herald. This was something they didn't have to do, but they did.
Of course not all bookstores (indy or not) are wonderful. I know of one store I can't be arsed returning to because I went in several times, found myself as both a customer and an author rebuffed with an air of “and why should we care?” that wouldn't have been out of place in an episode of Black Books. I'm not asking to be an exclusive customer or for VIP treatment, but you could at least be polite about things.
But bookshops in general – the good ones, the ones that make us passionate about books – are places to be cherished and supported. I beg, plead, with you not to use bookstore staff as mere resource and then go get the books off amazon. Yes, I know there's a cost thing but even if you bought one book in every three out of a real shop, you'll realise their value. And you'll help to maintain a service that – trust me – you'll miss when its gone.
I love bookstores. I love booksellers. As a reader, and as a writer, I have encountered so many passionate and knowledgeable sellers, people who remind us why we read, who can help us discover new and unread (at least to us) voices. I love to hunt around online, but nothing beats a bookstore. And if we don't use them, we'll soon realise how much we miss them.
So here's to stores like the Edinburgh Bookstore, carrying the torch for the joy of books. And may they, like so many other fine stores the world over, go from strength to strength and keep The Word alive.
*by the way, just to remind you of that US tour, you'll notice that every store visited is an indy. This is not entirely coincidence.
Thursday, September 9, 2010
It's the story of two (unlicensed) PIs, who of course get in over their heads.
I'm judging this by one line at the end of the episode, and the coming attractions, but it seems what the characters accomplished (sort of) in the first episode, will follow them through the rest of the season. I look forward to what happens next.
Unfortunately, this is a show I still have to digest a bit more. Love the lead actors and love their personal lives. The case, however, did not jump out at me. And since it seems what happened in that case will build in the next several episodes, it strikes me the adventure should stand out some more.
What did you all think?
I'll be tuning in again.
Wednesday, September 8, 2010
The Author Photo
So, yesterday an anonymous commenter said s/he wouldn’t buy anything in support of Jay because of the photo on his blog.
I think they meant the one right over there on the left.
Now, personally I like that picture, it’s got some movement in it and some attitude. It gives me an idea what to expect in a Jay Stringer story and I think that’s a good thing.
I remember when I was trying to get a blurb for my first novel and the only writer I knew was Peter Robinson (our wives worked in the same office) but my publisher said it wasn’t a good idea to lead readers down the cobblestone path of decent Inspector Banks only to then hit them over the head with my foul language, violence and ugly Toronto streets.
So the author photo can serve a purpose, but it’s still very hard to get right. My friend, Ray Robertson (he’s written some terrific novels and I recommend them all but a good place to start is What Happened Later, his fictionalized account of Jack Kerouac’s return to his Quebec roots mixed with a story of the coming of age of a young Canadian writer) has put together the Three Rules of the Author Photo:
1) Keep your hands away from your face (particularly damning is placing a wistful forefinger to your chin.
2) No smoking (even though, undoubtedly, you're a tortured soul -- hence the nicotine addiction -- and, obviously, you're incredibly busy with important literary matters, hence the fact you can't put down your cigarette for the ten seconds it takes to snap a picture).
3) No pets in the picture, please (your acute sensitivity and deep humanitarianism will doubtless come through in your writing).
(Note if you can somehow manage to have an animal on your lap while simultaneously puffing away and stroking your temple or chin, feel free to ignore the previous piece of advice.)
Well, certainly Jay has broken one of those with the smoke and his hands are close to his face if not actually touching it and for all we know there may be a dog nearby so that should pretty much do it.
I have a photo that shows up on Blogger sometimes of me reading a book with my dog in my lap. He’s too big to be a lapdog but he was a rescue and has some serious seperation anxiety and tends to stay pretty close to me. So, he really does get up in the big chair with me when I’m reading sometimes. Still, that’s not an official author photo.
The other day Adrian McKintey blogged about Shel Silverstein’s scary author photo and really, this is on a kids’ book?
Me, I’m still using a photo taken before my hair went completely gray. That’s not breaking any rules. Is it?
Tuesday, September 7, 2010
The Man With No Shame
Monday, September 6, 2010
Today is Labor Day, the day we set aside to honour the recent contribution to letters made by Tony Blair, former prime minister of the Britains.
Hahaha. Yeah. It's the day we in the colonies set aside to let our work pile up in order to make Tuesday the Following more of a hell.
So you're not supposed to do work on Labor Day. But the Pharisees said I could work on Labor Day if I pull my ox out of the ditch.
And speaking of work and reading and writing, here's something you can help me with -- um, with which you can help me, Mr Prime Minister.
You know when you finish a novel and then lean back in your chair as you set the book aside? That perfect moment in which you savor the moment of completion? The beginning of that opportunity, that beautiful land of openness in which you can now read whatever book you want. That moment, that's what makes life worth living, isn't it? Kinda like when you started a new year at school and you had all your notebooks and you hadn't messed them up with IRON MAIDEN RULES pen-carved into the covers.
The brightness of possibility.
That's why I love reading. I can pick up someone I've never read and find out why everyone loves this writer. I can hit the latest cool thing and join in on the discussion. I can crack open some Chekov I haven't read before and find out what really happened on the Starship Enterprise.
And then, every so often, the pain comes. That awful moment when you realize the book is crap. That you like this and that, but can't stand such-and-such. And you have to decide whether it's worth it to read the book.
The first 100 pages of DRAGON TATTOO, for example.
The first day on the job, the finding where the doughnuts are kept, the fresh office supplies -- suddenly this becomes work.
What do you do then?
Whether it's reading or writing, at some point, sometimes this becomes work. Maybe it's when the publisher sends the edits back. Maybe it's book tours. Maybe it's plotting.
For readers, maybe the first thirty pages are work for you. Maybe starting a book is tough. Or maybe it's getting lost in all the characters.
When does the book -- whether reading or writing -- become work for you? Does it happen often or rarely?
For me, hand-writing ideas is never work. I like to scrawl out thoughts and characters and dialogue on paper. When it becomes work is when I have to move one scene to the next, when I have to accomplish all I wanted to. When I have to get all the little pieces to meet, like a jigsaw puzzle when I don't yet have all the pieces -- or any idea what the picture is supposed to be.
And that point when I'm reading that I force myself to get to page such-and-such. Another 20 pages and if it doesn't get better, I'm giving up.
Sometimes there's nothing better than reading and writing through the holiday. And sometimes, you know, it's like pulling an ox out of a ditch.
Bonus: Contest at NEEDLE.
Sunday, September 5, 2010
A Rose By Any Other Name
Okay. I’m confused. I’m hoping some of you can help me out. This week, I saw a moniker for the first time that made me blink. Maybe it’s been out there for a while and I’m lagging behind the pack. With the impending release, I tend to be less plugged in. (Who am I kidding – I’m always lagging behind, but the release gives me a great excuse so I’m using it.) Anyway, this week, several self-published authors have begun using the term “independently published” to describe their publishing path.
Up front, let me say that I am not against self-publishing. I think every author has to decide what is right for his or her own career and make a choice as to how best to pursue it. Self-publishing has and always will be a viable option. Some argue that the rise of the e-book has made it a better option than traditional publishing. Hey – it might be. It gives authors total control of their books (which freaks me out – because I am not certain I should ever have total control of anything) and the right to set pricing. It also gives authors a way to connect with readers without going through a middleman. If this option feels right to an author, I say go for it.
But the thing I don’t get is the new “indie published” label. Saying a book is indie published doesn’t change that it has been self-published. It’s kind of like saying a duck isn’t a duck if I call it a goose. Changing the name doesn’t change the content. So why do it at all?
I’ve also noticed that some of the authors using this new label are very aggressive in pushing back when someone questions it. They are offended if someone calls them self-published. Why? If you act as your own publisher, you have self-published a book. Why would someone be offended by that term?
The only thing I can come up with is that these authors think that changing “self-published” to “independently published” is going to make people take their work more seriously. Personally, I think the content will do that more than the label. If a book is well-written, well-edited and entertaining, I don't care what you call it. Do you?
So, help me out here. What is the logic that I’m missing behind saying you are independently published versus self-published? What am I missing?