Category Archives: Uncategorized

Saying Goodbye to Borders

Today was not a good day. I made my last purchase at Borders, well, Borders.com, using up the balance on a gift card my girlfriend gave me.

As I navigated their unwieldy website, I couldn’t help but remember my first times at the store, and how regretful I am at its closing.

[Cue Corny Flashback Music]

I remember shopping at the Borders in the White Flint Mall in Rockville. You took an escalator to the second floor, which deposited you right on the shop floor. When I was a kid, that escalator ride felt magical. I was a nerd, and I liked reading. Plus, my mom was particularly indulgent when it came to books. Any book I wanted I could get. They were always the same young adult paperbacks, George Selden, E.B. White, Jerry Spinelli, that sort of thing, but to me each one was a discovery. I remember waking up before school to read The Egypt Game in bed, feeling at peace paging through the paperback’s pulpy newness. I may have been uninterested in the books on my school’s curriculum, but the books I bought at the Borders I carted around like treasure.

Soon, I migrated out of the young adult stacks to literature, and by seventh grade I got involved with the Russians. I probably read more Dostoevsky than was healthy at that age, or any age. This led me to a community college class in Russian, just one of the many eccentric moments of my middle school career.

Sure, I shopped at other bookstores. But Borders didn’t have the moldy smell of Second Story Books in Rockville, and wasn’t always deserted like the Waldenbooks. Not to mention Barnes and Noble, and the armed guards they hire to hassle patrons—or the large Nook kiosk they ironically set up at their entrances.

I remember my aunt taking me to the Borders in Farmington Hills on my birthday and buying me all sorts of classics that she said I had to read immediately in order to be considered educated. I never did, but the Herodotus did look pretty nice on my bookshelf.

Of course, by college I had moved on, and was more interested in college bookstores than anything chain. Only when my mom moved to Ann Arbor a few years ago did I really start to reconsider Borders. Located in the center of town on State Street, “Store #1” felt like the beating heart of a book-hungry town. Where else but Ann Arbor would book vendors set up in the middle of the night on East Liberty to hawk paperbacks? Sure, you could notice signs of decay, but why look? I wasn’t buying as many books, but I did try to spend a few hours there every time I visited home.

I know Borders is no mom and pop, and for most people, it was another link of a chain of strip malls stretching across America, but for me it remains meaningful. There just aren’t enough bookstores in the world for me to feel anything but displeasure when one closes. And I can’t help but think that shutting down those kinds of places where ideas thrive is a harbinger of bad things to come.

Guest Post: Writing the E-Book

This week, my good friend and author Liz Funk agreed to guest post. She has just written a great new ebook, Coming of Age in a Crap Economy, available here. I read an advance copy and loved it; Liz offers relevant advice and support to anyone dealing with fallout from the Great Recession. I have been very curious about e-publishing lately, and asked her to share her experience. So, without further ado, I turn the blog over to Liz.

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It made perfect sense that my next book would be an ebook.  At the risk of sounding annoying, my first book was a non-fiction look at how many of today’s young women attempt to emanate constant, effortless perfection in the form of nice clothes, acceptance to a brand-name college, and fancy jobs (even if they’re secretly anxious, self-loathing, and exerting an enormous amount of pressure on themselves to excel at everything they attempt).  It had a too-cute pink-and-yellow cover, it was published by Simon and Schuster, and they paid me a lot of money to write it.

My second book, Coming of Age in a Crap Economy, looks at how the bad economy has really hampered opportunities for young adults, and is a self-published ebook available on Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com.  In the context of what the book is covering, it makes sense that my book is an indie, DIY title without a big advance or a publicity budget or a team of people in charge of doing the stuff I didn’t know how to do, because my book covers how the recession has limited opportunities for young adults so young people need to create their own opportunities!

I had come up with the idea for a book about how the quarterlife crisis experience is different in the context of a recession in February 2010.  I actually articulated the idea in my head in the public bathroom at the beach in Santa Monica, CA, where I had taken a six-week working vacation (to Santa Monica, not to the ladies’ bathroom, of course).  I graduated from college in May 2009 and in the ensuring seven months, I was increasingly realizing that it was only going to get harder to support myself as a full-time freelance writer/author/speaker and I knew I didn’t want to be an English teacher or go back to grad school (which seemed like the two logical options for me and the two roads that virtually everyone in my professional network was choosing to avoid donning a Starbucks apron by day to write by night).  So I took a vacation and realized that I really wanted to write another book.

Alas, my editor at Simon and Schuster liked the idea, but the sales of my first book were modest and my editor also pointed out that it was hard to picture unemployed 20somethings freely purchasing shiny, new $15 paperback books.  I agreed.  Another publisher offered me a contract for the book, but it was a really shitty, almost exploitative deal, and I decided that, in the spirit of encouraging 20somethings to create their own opportunities—one of the main messages of Coming of Age in a Crap Economy—I’d do it myself.

It was a long process, especially because just after I decided to write the book and I gave myself a publication date (and told people the publication date!) so I’d stick to a self-imposed deadline, I got a big flux of freelance work that resulted in me working around 50ish hours a week on various writing/ PR consulting projects and trying to write the book in my free time (I ended up pushing back the book deadline a month, one week at a time). But still, I did it, and I wrote a 30,000 word ebook in about three months, plus did all the work that went along with publishing it.  Here’s what the process looked like:

1) Write book. It was little harder to find sources to interview for this book.  I found that people leaped at the opportunity to be interviewed for my first book but it was harder to find sources willing to dedicate about a half hour for a phone interview for an ebook.  So the book didn’t have any of the economics/ recession experts that I wanted to interview weighing in, but the book offers lots of candid anecdotes and advice from 20somethings and a small handful of psychologists who were happy to help. It was also hard to write at night and to turn down social invitations to finish the book, but I had that deadline!

2) Design book cover. I was going to hire someone but ended up doing it myself.  I searched around the web for stock art of a graduation cap and then added the text for the cover by using the postcard maker at Vistaprint.com. Then I saved the mock-up images of the postcard to my desktop and then changed them into jpegs.

 

3) Buy ISBN Expensive!  I bought 10 for $250, instead of one for $125, because I figured that I’d probably do more ebooks in the future. If anyone wants an ISBN, email me through my web-site and you can have one of mine!

 

4) Kindle formatting This is the second least favorite thing I’ve done in the course of my career, namely because I didn’t know how to do it.  Now that I know how to do kindle formatting, I think I’d see it as a much less miserable, if tedious, task if I had to do it again.  Again, if you want to do an ebook and need help with the formatting, email me and I can give you a quick rundown.  Regardless of how not-fun it was (my drunk, 2am tweets as I worked on the formatting as evidence), I ended up being glad that I didn’t pay a professional to do it, because it was do-able.

 

5) PR The really fun part!  Writing press releases, emailing the reporters I know, hitting up my friends to let me guest blog!  The book got a front-page mention in the business section of Albany, New York’s daily newspaper on Sunday (I live in Albany) and it was crazy to think, That’s an ebook!  I did literally every part of it!

Other notes on doing an ebook:

 Get friends to help you edit. My best friend sat at my dining room table with me one Friday night last month and went through the manuscript line-by-line with me and one of my longtime writing partners did a really thorough line-edit for me.  Check ten times for typos; it’s crazy how they slip by you.

I don’t recommend using Smashwords. If writing an ebook can feel a bit anti-climactic, Smashwords definitely makes it worse.  The first night I uploaded my book to Smashwords, I was so pumped to be self-published that I was awake at 3am on a Saturday morning ready to make the final version of my ebook go live.  Yet each time I uploaded the book, it didn’t look right. To the best of my knowledge, Smashwords doesn’t have the functionality to let you work on the formatting so you can see exactly what you need to do to make the book look right in their sample pages; it’s all trial-and-error, and you have to upload your book over and over again until you blindly guess the right way to fix it. After six attempts and still not getting the formatting to look like what I wanted it to look like, I was frustrated and I finally went to bed. 

The next time I tried uploading a version of my manuscript with corrected formatting, two days later, I saw that there was a queue to have your manuscript uploaded—and I was number 761 in that queue.  I did about five hours worth of work and finally I was number 200 in the queue.  It was like trying to connect to AOL circa 1997, when it was horribly slow and thus best to try to get online around 1am. 

(To my embarrassment, I clicked on the customer service box at the top of the Smashwords screen and fired off a curt message complaining about how unsophisticated the Smashwords technology was, especially given the significant commission that Smashwords collects on the books that they publish and distribute. The next day, I saw I had a surprisingly polite response from the CEO of Smashwords in my inbox.  I was too embarrassed to respond, but I do maintain that Smashwords takes too large a commission for simply converting your ebook into a clunky format. But I wish I had calmed down a bit before airing my grievances).

The funny thing is, when I figured out the kindle and epub formatting and finished it, every minute of it was worth it.  And ebooks are worth it.  There is something so satisfying about knowing that you—YOU!—have the agency to write something, publish it, and have it sold on a national online retailer’s web-site and it can happen as quickly as you can make it happen.

Before, the road to a published book was a long one with several steps—pitch agents, pick agent (and pray you picked the right agent if you had more than one offer), agent pitches publishers, you go to church more often than usual while publishers consider manuscript, you get offer, agent negotiates offer, you sign contract. And there are predators the whole way—scam agents, scam freelance editors who offer to spruce up your manuscript, scam vanity publishers.  Even when the book is published, you still relinquish a lot of control over the book.

Today, the process is much more fluid; write book, do the formatting, publish your book. The biggest reward is that those who write ebooks today are really the ones blazing the trail for the future of publishing.  Obviously ebooks are a part of today’s publishing landscape, but it’s still largely a course of trial-and-error; the big publishers can’t figure out how to price ebooks so they make a profit without turning readers away because of the price over five dollars. I sense that the main struggle for indie authors is figuring out how to reach enough people so they can capitalize off of having an ebook priced attractively under five dollars.  The cool part is that the only way we’ll figure is out is with more people writing ebooks and figuring out what works!

My Brother and I

Growing up, my older brother and I were never of the same mind about anything. If he liked building things with Legos, I liked destroying them, if he liked the baseball video game, we had to change it to the Hedgehog one (which is still better). Similarly, during our teen years, if my brother was into memorizing members of congress and their districts, I was trying to one-up him with The Disney Anthology. Yes, we were that nerdy.

I was certain we would never agree about anything. I staked out the left, and he the right, he obsessed over college basketball and I over college humor magazines. Sure, there was a détente during college, when he would come to visit for debate tournaments, but after college, we really started to come around to each other’s interests. It started with movies—we both liked watching the same cheesy sixties exploitation films like Psych Out or The Trip. Then that led us to discover the same psychedelic rock bands from the same era, which led to a million other things. Of course, I still had no interest in the law (his career), but I’m no longer afraid of it either, and even finished The Brethren on his recommendation.

Recently, his bar association threw a variety show, and we collaborated on a two minute video—our first film together. We wrote a Midwestern-tinged parody of the Jersey Shore, “Ohio Shore” last Christmas, a friend filmed him and a couple of pals acting out the script, and I edited the footage on Final Cut Pro. I had no way of getting to Ohio for the actual showing the other week—but from what I heard, our partnership paid off and the audience enjoyed it. This was nice to hear.

And it’s nice to be talking again, and hopefully planning the next partnership. Because, who knows, maybe our uncle is right, we could be the next Coen brothers. OK, maybe that one is a stretch.

Comments on any and all sibling rivalries, whether recovered or not, are welcome.

Trapezoid of Annoyances

Inspired by Parks and Recreation‘s Tom Swanson’s brilliant “Pyramid of Greatness,” I have set about developing my own this week. Yet, instead of a pyramid, I decided to organize my LA-specific pet peeves (all 34 of them) into something far more powerful than a mere archaeological curiosity: A Trapezoid.

Please, add your own. I left the top of the trap unfinished because I am sure there are even more annoying things about LA which I haven’t yet discovered. I’m being optimistic here.

For reference: The Swanson Pyramid

A Definitive Guide to Awards Show BS

If you follow the road to the awards shows this time of year, like I do, you probably have read a self-serving interview with an actor, director, or producer already ready to cross the dais and thank the Academy. These profiles generally appear in Sunday magazines, feature soft focus pictures and even more hot air. However meaningless these interviews may seem, the celebrities featured are trying to tell us something—we mortals just can’t understand what it is. Here is my attempt at translation.

“Listen, I still drive my kids to school each day”

It’s nice sometimes to see that the little people are still there. While they wouldn’t know me from Moses a week ago, I can’t help enjoying the looks on their faces now.

“I’m really getting to know my cast and crew now that we’ve hit the awards circuit”

While I had a hard time on set dealing with egos, they now make Natalie Portman’s character in Black Swan look like Bo Peep.

“I’m so grateful to the studio for believing in such a small movie.”

They only shut down production twice and ordered thirteen script rewrites. It was almost a miracle.

“I’m so surprised. This is so unexpected. We’re such a small, small indie, film.”

It’s just like the studio hadn’t spent three million dollars on ad buys and billboards.

“I’m just enjoying the ride.”

Excuse me, I have to go nervous-vomit in the bathroom, but I’ll be back poolside in a moment.

Not Such a Quickie Review: Tron Legacy

Has it really been twenty-eight years between Tron and its sequel? The personal computer boom, the world wide web, e-commerce, 3D, the XFL, Daft Punk—all of these things were merely glimmers in a dreamer’s eye when the first Tron appeared. While Tron may have seemed a computing club odyssey in the eighties, Tron Legacy is like a short trip down the information superhighway in 2010, easily relevant and hugely appealing. Except if it’s not.

Tron Legacy is the odd movie whose visuals are perfectly realized but whose story and characters are firmly 2D. Briefly, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) is trapped inside an arcade game, and it is the job of his bad boy son, Sam (Garrett Hedlund), to come rescue him in “The Grid.” Clu, Kevin’s computer avatar, has hijacked the game and is now intent on world domination, prepared to teleport an army of bad guy “program” soldiers to Earth. If ever you thought about buying a good antivirus, Tron will convince you of it. There are many other subplots tied to this tech universe; many of these are frustratingly unexplained or are tied to threads from the first movie.

This brings me to my biggest pet peeve: the world of Tron is no world but instead a carousel of pretty images. Mixed together in the movie’s overlong two plus hours are influences as mystifyingly diverse as Zen Buddhism, electronic music, Atari, Akira, Ziggy Stardust, Jules Verne, modern architecture, open source, and Russian science fiction flicks such as Aelita or Solaris. I wished many times during the movie that the director would just pick one idea and stick to it.

Not to say it isn’t an attractive, seductive film. The Daft Punk soundtrack is spectacular, providing the right electronic edge for The Grid. The visual effects are a total reboot from the first film. Michael Sheen is on fire as an evil David Bowie dancing his way through an all too brief cameo. The fight scenes are awesome, and the glow in the dark Grid is like an enchanting Tomorrowland wonderland I want to spend more time in. Yet this virtual world lacks depth.

I’ll end this review with a word of warning to directors of the future. Even with the best visual effects, million dollar budgets, and the most advanced studios at your behest, you do not have a movie without a fully realized script. There is a closing conversation between Clu and Kevin that comes to mind. Kevin tells Clu that “there is no perfection” and that the search for it is essentially meaningless. Likewise, you can make a perfect two hours of three dimensional images—but without meaning, intelligence, characterization, and story, those amazing, intricate visuals will never resonate the way they should and will remain but shadows on the screen.

On Being a Luddite

I have been thinking lately about The Social Network, which came out a couple of months ago, but still remains one of the few memorable movies I’ve seen this year. It shouldn’t be so interesting. So many of the scenes take place in front of a laptop, whether Mark Zuckerberg is banging away at Facebook’s code, making friends, or ordering a pizza. But I can’t blame director David Fincher, this extended computer noodling is expected from any movie set in the present.

And this makes me feel bad for the screenwriters of tomorrow. How interesting are laptops? Most people are content to conduct their entire lives in front of a screen, and while that may have made life easier, it remains exceedingly boring to watch.

What if The Sting had been set today? Paul Newman and Robert Redford’s wire scheme would have instead involved a few pat emails, some hacking into their mark’s bank account, and a congratulatory coffee at the corner Starbucks. Dorothy would never have stayed in Kansas if she had the Weather Channel app on her iPhone. Tornado Warning—unless you want to be spun clear to Oz, get out while you still can! And you know set today Revenge of the Nerds, both one, two, three, and four would have taken place not in a frat house but in a computer lab.

Any simple set of tasks that people used to obsess about and spend precious shoe leather on are now easily solvable by the internet. Banking? Online banking. Shopping? Amazon. Movies? Netflix. It’s just not the same world when everything is convenient. Even the Jetsons, the greatest prophecy our generation received about the future age, looks outdated now. Jane could have done most of the cleaning not pressing innumerable buttons but using her iBook.

What are screenwriters of the future going to do? Some workarounds are funny—others, like the Act I “Dying Cellphone” bit, are overused. This clip is courtesy of FourFour.

I know I sound like Andy Rooney. I’m sorry. Go ahead, prove me wrong in the comments.