Friday, April 18, 2014

This is about a toaster

I started writing this several days ago, when I was lying in bed wondering why I hadn’t fallen asleep. The opening sentences I imagined seemed to work, I was pleased, and I fell asleep. When I woke up at my usual time, I’d forgotten the opening. But it doesn’t matter. This is really about a toaster.

Our toaster died a few weeks ago. It wasn’t a special toaster, and it wasn’t expensive when it was new. The toaster was a simple two-slice, pop-up GE toaster, steel body, plastic sides and lever. My husband’s friends pooled their meager funds and purchased the toaster as a wedding gift—in 1967. Yes, the toaster lasted for 47 years.

This household appliance didn’t simply stop working. As will happen with most of us when the time comes, the toaster broke down piece by piece. Instead of popping up automatically when the toast was done, it continued toasting. We knew the toast was ready when streams of smoke undulated upward. Fortunately, the lever still worked manually, better than it ever had before. When we hit the lever, the toast popped up and went into orbit, flying over the counter and the stove and landing on the floor, almost in the front hall. Like the toaster, I suppose I’ll disintegrate one part at a time and land at the doorway of another world, barely functioning.

Forty-seven years is a long time for anything. No other appliance in our home has lasted as long, and neither has much else. During all those years, we have lived in seven apartments (in five cities) and one house (in a sixth). We have owned six cars and several bicycles. (The motorcycle I had before we married doesn’t count.) We’ve had two cats and two dogs.

Most marriages don’t fare as well as our old toaster. The median duration of first marriages that end in divorce is 7.8 years for men and 7.9 years for women. (And no, I don’t know why women get an extra month or so of marriage. Are we reluctant to let go, even after the divorce decree?) But we’re quicker on the second marriage. The median duration of second marriages that end in divorce is 7.3 years for men and 6.8 years for women. (The second time around it’s the men who can’t let go.)

It gets worse when we look at the statistics for people who have been married for more than ten years. The percentage of married people who reach their 25th, 35th, and 50th anniversaries is 33%, 20%, and 5%, respectively. I’m saddened just looking at the figures.

I’m beginning to get a glimmer of where the idea of planned obsolescence came from. Manufacturers were obviously onto something before the US Census Bureau caught up with them. The men and women who design and make toasters, stoves, sofas, and all the rest of the stuff we fit into our homes knew before anyone else that marriages were getting shorter, so why make products meant to last? Advertisers are now telling people they should be replacing their mattresses and furniture every seven years.

This marketing scheme makes me wonder if changing your home furnishings so completely undermines the marriage by taking away whatever was stable and familiar, and replacing it with something new and, truly, unnecessary. Perhaps it is this practice that nudges couples toward divorce. Perhaps those who keep the old stuff fare better. When I take my daily walk I pass the detritus of this thinking—sofas that barely lasted three years and one child or one dog, bookcases that collapsed under the weight of packed shelves, old televisions bought only three years ago, and all sorts of odds and ends no one wants anymore.

I’m going to miss my toaster. It was a constant in my life, but we knew it wouldn’t last forever. We purchased a backup some years ago, knowing what was coming. That one was white plastic and barely got the job done. So, when the end came, we decided to splurge and bought a two-slice toaster designed for long slices of bread. This one is sturdy but mostly plastic. I won’t be around for another 47 years, but I do hope this is the last toaster I ever have to buy. At this point in my life, I don’t want to be reminded how easy it is to throw out the old and buy everything new. I don’t like contemplating my own mortality. I’ll stick to toasters.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Paths to Publication: Sisters in Crime, New England, Workshop

I used to go to Decorators’ Show Houses with a friend to marvel at the ways other people could spend their money. I never expected to have a room like anything I saw in one of the houses. I went just for fun. My friend, on the other hand, went to pick up ideas. She wanted to get one or two ideas each year that she could try out in her own home. I thought that was realistic.

On Saturday, March 29, 2014, Sisters in Crime New England held a daylong workshop on the many paths to publication—traditional, small press, self-publishing, or a combination of two or all of these. Writers on five panels talked about their experiences finding agents, working with editors, choosing to self-publish, learning the ups and downs of going it alone as an Indie, marketing, and more. They shared their experiences, discoveries, advice, and support.

I’ve been published in all three ways, beginning with a reference work in 1988 followed with 8 novels from commercial presses and 1 as an Indie, but I knew I would learn something. And I did. I picked up two or three ideas to try out in my own writing and publishing career. Not all of the ideas suggested would work for every writer, but there was, I think, something for everyone, the beginner, intermediate, and expert (whatever that one is). So, here are the ideas I liked best for my career and I plan to try them on my new Anita Ray mystery coming out in May 2014. For the Love of Parvati is set in the hills of central Kerala during the monsoon. The story features a family estate, a very lucky goat, a temple, and a leopard, along with the rains.

First, I liked the idea of a marketing giveaway. Many writers do bookmarks, so it’s hard to make mine stand out in the pile. One writer puts a miniature of her book cover on a matchbox. Another made small seed packets with her book cover and planting information. I decided to go back to an earlier idea I’d had and set aside, but this time approach more realistically—recipe cards. I can cards for the many dishes mentioned in the Anita Ray books. I love Indian food and I know I’m not the only one, so I think a few simple recipes on recipe cards might be fun.

Second, several writers talked about the groups they belong to, and how they can extend their advertising reach by getting a mention in the organization newsletters or magazines. I like that idea, so I’m looking at unconventional sites for reviews or mentions of the book. A dear friend has a cooking blog and plans to showcase the book along with a recipe for an Indian dish. He came up with the idea when I told him about the book, and I’m grateful to him for the offer and for sparking the idea.

Third, I’m used to handing out bookmarks whenever I do an event, putting them on chairs and sliding them into any book I sell, and leaving them with booksellers. All that is standard procedure. But I am now going to experiment with adding them to everything I mail—bills, donations, etc. I’m curious to see if that has any effect on sales or what kind of feedback I’ll get.

These are not very original ideas, but they will give me a new way to reach readers and, I hope, stimulate me to think of more ways.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Not for Writers Only: The Other Kind of Interview

My next novel, For the Love of Parvati: An Anita Ray Mystery, will be published in May 2014, so of course I’m thinking about promotion and events. A mainstay of the writer’s life is the interview, especially on a blog or in a newspaper. We are used to the long list of questions about how we write, where we get our ideas, how do we do research, what are our goals, favorite characters, and how did we get our agent or publisher. Then come the questions on favorite colors or vacation spots or clothing that are meant to reveal something about our personal character and quirks. The questions leave room for answers about our pets and families. I’ve answered and asked variations on these questions dozens of times, but there is another interview that we hear less about.

New writers may get their first exposure through an interview on cable TV. This may not go farther than the hometown but it can be excellent practice for something bigger. After appearing on a number of local shows and watching other writers and speakers on various topics, I have a few suggestions.

First, keep your hands in your lap. Many of us are expressive, enthusiastic types and our hands fly up at the first hint of something interesting. We wave our hands, spread out our fingers, turn our palms upward our outward, all in tune with our words. Our hands are the baton of the speaker, leading the audience in response. But they are a distraction. Hold your hands loosely together and keep them in your lap.

Second, come prepared with questions. I expect the interviewer to have done his or her job, but many don’t get a chance to read the book you’ve written or research the social issue you want to talk about, or even care about the charity event you’re promoting. If you don’t come prepared with solid questions for the interviewer to ask, you may face a very uncomfortable fifteen minutes or even longer. I generally come with a fact sheet or some printed material I can give the interviewer, just to make her job easier. She’ll thank you and she’ll remember you the next time you call to ask for a segment of her show.

Third, know how to move the interview along. I once faced an interviewer I knew and liked but he wanted to know exactly where my novel was set. I explained that the relevant part of South India was subtropical, very close to the equator, but that wasn’t enough for him. Was it like Florida? No, hotter. How hot? I gave a few temperatures. But every time I thought we were done with this, he asked another question about weather. I was sucked into a downward spiral. I still look back on that interview with confusion. I don’t know what more I could have done to answer the question, but I do know I could have come prepared to change the direction of the discussion.

Fourth, experienced interviewers will tell you that when you are ready to make a direct pitch, look straight into the camera, and talk face to face, so to speak, to the audience, the person sitting at home and watching. It felt very odd to me to do this, but I figured the interviewer knew his business. After all, it was his show. So, when the time came, I swallowed my nervousness, looked directly into the camera, and asked the people watching me to make a donation. (I wasn’t promoting a book this time; I was asking for support for a charity.) If you prepare for this, you’ll look less uncomfortable to the audience, and they will be more likely to respond positively.

Fifth, keep in mind that your audience can be people who have little or no interest in you or your book or your cause. I imagined the audience of cable TV shows or off-hours local commercial TV shows to be sitting at home watching TV while someone made dinner, folded the laundry, or waited for a better show to come on. This was my audience. I was wrong. A friend who was taking a writing class at night told me that she and her fellow students were hanging out in a bar when my interview was scheduled to run. They persuaded the bartender to turn the channel to the show and the entire crowd in the waterfront bar watched me talk about a novel set in India. I can’t vouch for the level of attention but it certainly taught me an unexpected lesson. Your words will be heard in the oddest places. Choose them carefully.

Check out my books at or on Amazon.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Book Launch: Selling the Book Today

On a recent evening I had the pleasure of listening to Tempa Pagel discuss her new book, They Danced by the Light of the Moon, the second in her Andy Gammon series. I’ve known Tempa for twenty years, when she signed up for a writing workshop in New Hampshire and later joined a writers’ group I started. We still meet as a group, and watching her success is especially pleasing.

Launching a new book is work, as is the follow-up of establishing an audience for it and its sequel. As different as we may be as writers, we all face the same challenge—finding readers. Tempa held a book launch and party at a local bookstore, and invited everyone she knew in the area. She gave a brief talk, about forty minutes, and then took questions and later signed books. The bookstore owner provided refreshments for a wine and cheese evening. Tempa began her talk with a joke, talked about the origins of the story and her research, which involved learning about two historic buildings in the area, and historical events that informed her novel. She maintained a balance between information and humor.

Twenty years ago the book launch would be followed by events at other bookstores and libraries and interviews for radio, television, and newspapers. New writers might send hundreds of postcards to libraries throughout the country, and visit area bookstores, offering to “sign stock,” as it was called. Writers offered (and still do) writing workshops and classroom visits. For all but the most successful writers, selling a book was a person to person job. It meant getting in the car and making contact with owners of bookstores and buyers at libraries. The writer was in a sense following the path of the book salesman, who went with catalogues to individual bookstores recommending specific titles because he knew the bookstores' clientele, knew what people in the area bought. These sales people are all but gone now.

With the advent of the Internet, selling books changed dramatically, so much so that some writers never have to leave the house to establish a readership and sell thousands of copies a year or a month. They establish a presence on Facebook and sites where readers gather—Goodreads, Librarything, or the Reading Room, among others. They post stories to interest readers on Wattpad and other sites, and they network wherever readers gather to discuss books and find recommendations. They email libraries with book flyers, send out newsletters, and hold virtual book launches without ever buying a stamp, a bottle of wine, or a piece of paper.

Every writer finds a way to find readers, but we are always learning more. James Moushon queried dozens of writers to identify what writers use now. It’s interesting to read through and see the number of resources writers have come up with. Not everyone follows the same path; most writers use a mix of social media, finding the ones they’re most comfortable with and focusing on those. But all of those interviewed agreed on one point—finding readers is about building relationships. Each reader tells another, and on it goes. We might do much of the work in front of a screen now, but in the end it is still a person to person job.

The writers interviewed mention several sites that might be of interest. The survey and its link are given below.

Your Book Launch: Marketing Methods and Ideas Used by Outstanding Authors – A Study

Friday, February 28, 2014

Litigation and . . . time

In 2005 I learned about a class action lawsuit against Google through a writers’ organization. This one is different from the current lawsuit against Google for unauthorized digitizing of the world’s library. The one I’m talking about here is Literary Works in Electronic Databases Copyright Litigation. I received a notice yesterday (actually three notices by mail) telling me that I had filed three claims, two were disallowed, but the third was being processed. I filed my claims within the deadline and sent paper backups. In 2005. In the interim I heard not a word.

I remember filling out some of the paper work for this claim. Even more vividly I remember going through my files and listing every piece of published writing done within a certain period, and being very surprised at the number. I hadn’t realized I’d been so prolific in writing nonfiction on a variety of topics. A lot of the works were book reviews, and I have no idea how those will fare in this claim. I also recall receiving an email that certain works wouldn’t be allowed because they hadn’t been copyrighted. I sent them copies of the copyright registrations by registered mail.

This is the second class action lawsuit that I have found myself benefiting from. A few years after I published an article in Clues: A Journal of Detection (1996), I received a letter stating that the university had sold the rights to articles published in the journal without receiving permission; a group of writers (as I recall) had sued, and here was my piece of the settlement. In the envelope was a check for $750.

I don’t know what the settlement in this current lawsuit will be, but I do know that some of it will depend on my registration of copyright with the Library of Congress. While it is true that today a writer owns the copyright of a work the minute it is created, it is also true that those who register the copyright with the Library of Congress will collect more in the way of monetary damages than those who do not register their copyright.

I did nothing to bring about the settlement with Clues. I filed a lot of paper for the Database Litigation but I had nothing to do with filing the lawsuit and following up. I occasionally receive a request for information on whether or not I flew a certain airlines within a certain period, and after that I might receive a small check as part of a settlement. I’ve occasionally received a voucher for a small amount of money.

After the Snowden and NSA debacle, no one should be surprised that someone somewhere out there is misusing someone else’s information or work but it is still a surprise to me—a pleasant surprise—to find that others are fighting back, even as I wander about in ignorance, and that I have been included in the settlement.

And as a result, I will continue to register my copyrights even when others tell me it’s a waste of money. And I will also continue to pay my dues to the various writers’ groups who keep track of these things like lawsuits and let their members know that it’s now time to sharpen those fingernails and get clacking on those keys, and file those claims.

I don’t know if I’ll get much in the way of compensation, but I’m looking forward to getting a check in the next . . . few years.

The litigation is in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, in re Literary Works in Electronic Databases Copyright Litigation, M.D.L. No. 1379.