Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Word Count Wednesday

Word Count Wednesday

Last week: 1926 
(just "found" a few words in my trusty WCW notebook!)

This week: 2188
Moving in the right direction! 

In Defense of Amazon

I love Facebook. I really do. I spent much too much time on it this morning because I became captivated by the kids and teachers in their back-to-school finery. I was also delighted to find news of the publication of a friend’s book and “news” that a quiz revealed that another of my friends would be played by Meryl Streep if ever her life story became a movie. Lucky girl.

Notice a theme? These are all good things. Fun things. Amusing, if not entirely true, things. 

But I must say that I’m growing weary of all the bashing. Much as I hate to see sad news on my news feed, life and death and all that happens in between are largely unavoidable. But when did Facebook become the place to bash good intentions and offer one size fits all advice that really doesn’t fit everyone well or equally?

Examples? You know I’ve got ‘em. There were two that hit me this morning but I’m going to stick to just one for the purposes of this post which promises to be a long one: Amazon is the root of all evil.

Do I agree with all of Amazon’s business practices? I do not. But when authors tell readers not to buy books from Amazon, they aren’t hurting Amazon. They’re hurting other authors.
Let me tell you a story. Picture it: Pennsylvania, 2013. A newly retired educator signs a contract with a small publisher that will bring her manuscript out of the slush pile and into the hands of readers. Is the contract perfect? No. Are there bumps along the way? Absolutely. In fact, the book almost didn’t happen.

But it did, and so “almost” is water under the bridge. In January 2014, my first novel was published. And thus began my education in book sales.

I’d had two books published before, but they were in a niche market, and truly, the only place they were readily available was through the publisher. Though I eventually got copies into the local author section of a small indie bookstore and a chain store (Borders -- so you know how that ends), most copies were sold through my publisher. That worked for these titles, though, as most of the purchasers were buying them through school districts that issued purchase orders to the publishers.

But fiction is an entirely new story (no pun intended). My book is not self-published. It is available through a distributor, with discounts and return guarantees. That means a bookseller can order my book at less than the cover price and they can return it if it doesn’t sell.

And I still can’t get it into bookstores unless I’m willing to put it there on consignment. 

There have been a few exceptions. Thankfully, Barnes and Noble was one of them. But before my nearby B & N could stock my novel, the book had to pass muster at the corporate level. A stranger in an office somewhere who makes these decisions got to decide whether or not my book made it “into the system” and until it was there, no copies could be ordered for any Barnes and Noble store. In addition, during this time (when I was launching my book), I was ineligible to participate in Barnes and Noble’s author events. (I don’t get paid for author events at bookstores, by the way. I do them because they’re a necessary part of book promotion, and because when they’re done right, they’re a lot of fun).

Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach, DE (close to where we vacation) was another notable exception. When I arrived for the book signing they so graciously  made possible for an unknown author, they had a whole stack of my books. They gave me a free beverage, placed me in a prime location and I had a wonderful time talking to everyone who came through the door. And I sold a lot of books. Not a lot by John Grisham or J. K. Rowling standards, but enough to make me very happy.

Not all indie bookstores operate like that, though. Others will gladly carry my book, provided I consign it. I do this on a limited basis for several reasons. I believe in my book, and I think people need to actually get it into their hands or, failing that, read a sample before they know whether or not they want to read it. I also understand that indie bookstores often operate on a shoestring budget and with limited space and that they simply don’t have the room to stock a lot of books by first-time authors who aren’t famous or connected to the store in some way. Finally, I like indie bookstores. I think they’re important and I want them to stick around.

But do you know how much money I make on a consigned book? Depending on the terms, it’s sometimes not enough to cover the cost of a chai at Starbucks. Or Sheetz. Or what it costs me in gas to  deliver the book to the store and drive home again.

My biggest disappointment in this game, however, was the Christian retailers -- the big guys, not my local indie store -- and since “retailers” truly is plural, they shall remain nameless. In order for them to consider my book at all (if I even get that far -- some don’t return e-mails), I must follow the process I described for Barnes and Noble above, but I must provide them with a copy of my book and, contrary to popular belief, author copies are not free. The store’s management can then accept or reject my book for their stores, but either way, they will not return my copy to me. They can acquire my book for their stores through a distributor at a discount. They can return it if it doesn’t sell. And yet they are unwilling to go through this process. Instead, they want a free copy of my book, which they are free to accept or reject, then discard.

Is it unwieldy for them to comb through the news of new releases for every new book by every unknown author to see which books would be a good addition to their inventory? Of course it is (though that’s pretty much what indie booksellers do on a typical day). 

But is it too much to expect that if I go to the local branch of a nationwide retailer, introduce myself and ask them to take a look at my book, that they consider it for the store located in my town where the people I know shop? I don’t believe that it is. 

Have I stopped doing business with that retailer? I have. Will I ask others to do so as well? 

I will not. Because when I do, I hurt every author whose work is sold in that store. And I have no right to do that.

When an author writes a book and gets it published, she wants people to read it. Amazon has made that possibility a reality for me more than almost anywhere else. They carry my book in e-book and softcover. They can deliver it to anyone anywhere. People can “look inside this book” to see if they like my characters and storyline enough to read more -- enough to decide in favor of a purchase or against it. Kindle purchases, like consignment purchases, don’t earn me enough for a Starbucks. But, like consignment purchases, they put the book into readers’ hands. Amazon has carried my book from the first day it was available.

Is Amazon making life miserable for other authors? Yes, it is. Should these other authors tell their readers where they can find their books? Absolutely. Does Amazon have a right not to carry books whose authors and publishers don’t follow their rules and jump through their hoops?

If you think that’s not the case, and if you think Amazon is alone in this practice, please re-read this column. But please, if you’re a reader or a writer, don’t toss out the baby with the bathwater.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Tuesday News: Sale!

I just got news last night that my publisher has decided to price Casting the First Stone at $1.99 for a few days. If you haven't read it, now's a great time to grab a copy on Amazon.

In addition, if you are interested in using Casting the First Stone as a book club selection, I'll be happy to send you a copy of my book club questions. You can contact me via e-mail or my Facebook page.

Happy Reading -- whatever book is in your hands!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Goldilocks Creates a Schedule

I spent two days last week trying to create a schedule for a class I'm teaching this semester, only to end up totally frustrated and unsatisfied. Okay, maybe not two full days -- but too big a chunk of those days to end up without the desired (by me) version of the product I'd set out to create.

The trouble was, I wasn't the one who desired the product, and while my endeavors yielded some benefits, the whole exercise once again provided validation of something I already knew.

My brain just doesn't work that way.

Don't get me wrong. I don't think creating the schedule (imperfect though it was) was a waste of time -- precisely because not everyone's brain works the same way. My students who are planners will like this resource -- many will need this resource. And to be honest, I got something out of the process, too. Creating the schedule helped me to sketch out plans for the first two or three units of the semester.

But that's where I got stuck. I was lacking no resource. I had samples and all the information I could possibly want about the subject matter, but I haven't met my students yet and so I haven't yet answered the Goldilocks question for this group of undergraduates: too easy, too hard or just right?

And it was the just right that led me to want to throw things and pull out my hair. And spend much too much time on what should have been a simple task.

In the end, I settled for as close to just right as I could get, with the disclaimer that all dates are approximate and subject to change. If my students "get" something right away, I don't want to drag it out for another  30 minutes just because the schedule says so. And if, on the other hand, they don't "get" something, I don't want to push forward just because the schedule says so.

Fortunately, no one expects me to do that. Over the course of the semester, I need to cover the material  and approximate schedule or no approximate schedule, I'm at liberty to change the dates, the assignments, the order of topics…all of it.

So why was this so hard?
Because without meaning to, I'd made it a matter of absolutes. For me, creating a schedule creates the illusion that certain items will be checked off at certain times. This topic will take ten minutes, that one twenty, and the one over there, well, that could take a day or two. When I hear "schedule," I think "itinerary."

Hmm. Could it possibly be that it took so long because I kept getting in my own way?

And so perhaps my first lesson for the semester was a lesson in empathy. Should I require my students to follow a path that's an uphill climb because the adults have mapped it out and determined it's the best way to go? Or should I encourage them to ignore the GPS and follow the path that makes sense to them, provided they arrive at the right destination? Isn't it only fair for them to expect that if they're going to put in the work, the eventual outcome will be of some benefit to them as well?

Yes, I know that all sounds ridiculously idealistic, but I'm not sure that's such a bad way to begin a semester. Reality will intrude for all of us soon enough as we check off the things we must accomplish, but for me, one of the things I want to teach my students is a love of learning. If I'm to do that, then I need to encourage them to create connections between themselves and the subject matter so that when an assignment requires divergent thinking, they truly believe they're not only allowed to flex that muscle but encouraged to do so. I can put the information into the semester's GPS, expecting -- and even encouraging -- a little "recalculating" along the way.

And for me the first step is unboxing the schedule.

Speaking of schedules…last week, I shifted into "semester mode" and completely forgot about Word Count Wednesday. Due to an unpredictable week which lacked sprints, stretches and pretty much all things writing-related that weren't also school-related, I not only didn't have much to report. I didn't realize until last night that I'd failed to report it.

Look for an update this Wednesday :-)

Friday, August 15, 2014

Friday Freebie: What I'm Reading in Ten Minutes or Less: Robin Williams' Lessons for Teachers

This summer, I had a reading assignment. All of us who are teaching PSY100 next semester read (and discussed) Teaching With Your Mouth Shut. Weird title, I know. And though the basis of the book was valid, it wasn't nearly as much fun to learn the concepts from the author as it was to watch Robin Williams put them into practice on the screen.
The book focused on stepping away from the role of all-knowing purveyor of knowledge and into the role of facilitator of information, much as Williams did in my favorite of his movies, Dead Poet's Society.

So, if you'd like to read something inspiring about Robin Williams -- something that has nothing to do with depression or suicide, or even an incredible blue genie -- check out Anya Kamenetz's blog at NPR about how a gifted sage on the stage demonstrated how to be the guide on the side.

Rest in peace, Oh Captain, My Captain.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

That's My Spot

I got up on Monday morning and looked out onto my patio to see something disturbing. My husband, who was off the first few days of this week, had set up his computer on our patio table.

He had taken over my outdoor office. I mean, who told him he could do that?
When I told him (à la Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory) that he was in my spot, he very nicely offered to share.

Share? But, but, but…I usually have the whole patio table to myself on Monday mornings. I get up and pack my daughter's lunch, she heads off to her volunteer job and I set up shop on the patio table, where I work until my laptop battery hits the red zone, at which point I take a shower and do things like eat lunch, run errands and grab a Starbucks. It's a tough life.

It's funny. Of the three of us in this house, I am the least routine dependent. My daughter and I joke that my husband is the Sheldon of the house. She's change-resistant, and I've always been the flexible one.

By comparison, I still am the flexible one, but the older I get, the more stressful I find flexibility to be. No, I wasn't really stressed out by moving my laptop to another location, nor would I have been stressed out by sharing the table with my husband, had we not had a workman a few feet away fixing our door. The noise from the power tools, coupled with the usual low-grade Monday morning neighborhood noise was enough to distract me from the task at hand: turning a blank page into a blog post.

One of the nice things about having the house to myself during the week (besides the lack of distractions) is that I have the freedom to work wherever I wish. That said, with the exception of my patio, which serves as a universal workspace, different tasks tend to be done in different places. If I'm not out on the patio, I usually write in my office or at the dining room table. Class prep can take place at the dining room table, in the family room or in the living room -- but rarely in my office. Some of the issues are space related -- my office affords much less space to spread out than the dining room table -- but others are sheer habit. The basis of routine.
The power tools at my house and the mowing a few yards down were eventually silenced, allowing me to join my husband on the patio. Then again, I'd already used my own virtual power tools to break through the wall of silence created by the blank page on my computer.

Last week, one of the secretaries at the college said she couldn't imagine retiring because she needs a routine. I responded immediately that she would quickly develop her own.

As it turns out, one of the things we fear about retirement is the possibility that days will just dribble away -- the very thing we long for when we are working full-time and vacation days are finite, delicate and rare. And so we do what we know: we create lists and routines to make sure that at the end of the day, we've done something useful.

But it's also important to remember, not just at the end of the day, but all through it, that what is useful in life is not just things. Days where we check things off the list are nice, but there's a reason we spend much of our lives longing for days we can just while away. It's not practical, but perhaps practicality is overrated.

I suspect that Sheldon would disagree, but that's okay. I don't want to be Sheldon.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Ever since we started going to Bethany Beach (or, more accurately, Ocean View) for vacations, one of my favorite spots there -- or anywhere -- has been the screened-in porches that are a staple in the complex where we stay. I begin and end most days out there, usually with my laptop, but sometimes with my journal or a whatever I happen to be reading.

But this summer was different.This summer, the furniture on our rented patio was uncomfortable. It was fine for meals and board games, but it didn't lend itself to extended stays with a laptop or a good book. Despite the fact that the weather was cool and perfect for patio stays, I spent less time out there writing than usual, opting instead for a nook inside the condo.

We've had other years where the furniture on the patio was less than ideal, but that never kept me inside, and so it began to dawn on me that something else must be different this time around. And, when I got home, I realized what that something was.

Our patio at home.

We've been entertaining the idea of enclosing our back patio for several years now, but have come to the conclusion that unless we hit the lottery, it will be a PCT project (post-college tuition). In the meantime, over the past several summers, we've purchased structures with mesh screening that let the breeze in and keep the insects (mostly) out, enabling us to sit outside in most weather conditions.

Earlier this summer, we purchased the latest incarnation, which is a bit larger and more substantial than the others we've had. We also traded in our old round table for a smaller, rectangular model and replaced a bench that was worse for wear with a square ottoman that can be tucked under the table. As a result, the space feels bigger.

Little by little, we've added small touches. White lights. A fan. A throw pillow. A note pad and some writing utensils tucked into a basket and a cute handled tote (yes, Thirty-One) that sits on the table and holds tissues & hand sanitizer, or works as a way to transport a few things between the house and the patio.

Little by little, this space has become my outside office. My comfortable, homey outside office. The enclosure is a little more spacious than the ones we've had in summers past, and as we've added our touches, it looks more like a room in and of itself.

On our last day at the beach, I typically spend a few minutes alone on the screen porch, soaking up the ambience to take a little of it home with me. On this past trip, I didn't feel the need to do that, nor did I feel the same twinge of sadness when we left the condo. And that evening, once things were unpacked and the washer and dryer were churning away, I pulled up a chair to the table on the patio outside my own back door.

It felt good to be home. Sometimes, there's no place like it.