Tag Archives: publishing

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!

Two Bookstores

Metropolis (Left) and inside the Last Bookstore (Right)

Los Angeles has just about everything, but it doesn’t have that many great bookstores. Sure, there’s Book Soup in West Hollywood, and out in Pasadena there is Vroman’s. But if you live in West LA like me you’re hard pressed to find anything more than a storefront in a strip mall or a Barnes & Noble. I could rattle off a couple of independent video stores I like that are mere walking distance from my apartment, but as for books, forget it. It may be the wrong medium for this town, but I tend to get nostalgic.

There are two bookstores in downtown that reverse that trend, both one block between each other. They represent two business models, and their experience gives a bit of insight into the future of independent booksellers in this country.

Metropolis Books

This is a little gem of a store tucked away next to an abandoned movie theatre on Main. A refuge from the grit of the Arts District, it has all of the charm of a favorite aunt’s home—couches, fans, and a friendly dog resting near the entrance, not to mention very kind staff.

Metropolis has some specialties like mystery, horror, fantasy, and science fiction. It even has a nice young adult nook at the back that would make Judy Blume proud. There is a used bookshelf in the corner, but most of the stuff on sale are crisp hardbacks and paperbacks. Some of the titles are too expensive for my budget, so when I look through the stacks, I make a mental note to compare the prices to those on Amazon.

And that’s my problem, I love Metropolis Books, but I can’t quite afford its selection. This points to a larger problem in the bookselling community: I am not a fan of the e-book, but the prices do look good—seven or eight dollars less than the list. Call it a failing of my generation but we will always mentally comparison shop between bricks and mortar and whatever’s online.  I want great independent bookstores like Metropolis to exist forever, because they support great independent authors, but I wonder if the competition is far too intense.

The Last Bookstore

The Last Bookstore sits just north of Metropolis next to a quaint little restaurant, The Banquette Café. It just opened last year and has already won Best New Business from The Los Angeles Downtown News. And it does deserve a nod. The staff is friendly and the book selection (almost all used) is strong and eclectic. I could just as easily find a book on philosophy as one on food, or history. Unlike Metropolis, they don’t specialize in any genre, but they do have a great literature section. In fact, there’s an entire shelf in back devoted to local poets and prose writers.

The Last Bookstore, perhaps because it is run with such youthful enthusiasm, hosts a plethora of events. Almost every month’s art walk brings another reading or music performance. The shop is always busy, especially with young hipsters, and sometimes I can’t even find a seat at the table in back.

Yet, there are very few new books on sale. Their business model is good—used books can be bought at a fraction of the price and are easy to resell. Let’s face it, most readers aren’t sticklers for clean-looking pages. The Last Bookstore is not just a tongue in cheek nod to 1984; this is the last place books are sold. Authors and publishers make no money on the merchandise. I love the store, but I worry the name is a self-fulfilling prophecy: if there were only last bookstores, there would be no authors and no new books.

I spend more money at the Last Bookstore, by far, but I can’t help but think this isn’t doing much for the book buying economy. Secondhand bookstores will always exist; even in an internet economy they can do most of their business online because there still is a market for old or out of print books. And as much as I like the model, I can’t help but feel nostalgic for those places that weren’t the last, the places you come to find books first, the kind of stores that are quietly disappearing.

On Bellbottoms and Being Dated

Hollywood has certainly benefited from new technology. I mean, we’ve made it a long way from silents to Technicolor IMAX 3D THX sensations. Every aspect has improved, that is, except screenwriting. The number of nineties movies I’ve seen where the hero whips out a huge cell phone or a milk crate-sized laptop are countless. Not only does it take me out of the movie’s “high-tech reality” it also provides a sort of inappropriate comic relief: “Man, does Arnold look like a loser with that giant Nokia!” That’s the definition of dated for me—some gadget, saying, or set piece that is so old it looks like an anachronism even then.

Sometimes this datedness can serve as camp humor. Austin Powers does this well—I mean, who can forget the secret agent man’s rotating bed? Other times, it just comes off as, well, crap.

Here’s where dated falls flat. I’m invoking show don’t tell here and won’t even comment on the seventies excess of this next video. Sorry, Neil Sedaka. I love the song, not the bell bottoms.

Here’s the hard part: how to avoid being dated. I don’t have a very good answer. Everything we write now will look a little creaky in ten or so years. Writers simply don’t know enough to predict what trends have staying power (let’s just hope it’s not Justin Bieber). The myth that by not including any references to pop culture or appliances will save your story is bunk. Everything is influenced by everything else—even the simplest word choice can reflect a time more correctly than any reference. The best stories do include a historical context—that’s not a bad thing. Commenting on the absurdities of one’s generation could even be considered a writerly rite of passage.

Only when those references become the focus of the story do things fail. So, my advice is to focus on the transcendent stuff—relationships, emotions, people, thoughts, feelings, ideas. The rest, no matter what, is window dressing after all. Sure, the material changes, but the other stuff doesn’t. No matter how we change, we’ll always fall in love, we’ll always fall out of love, we’ll always grapple with death, life, birth, all of those big issues: no matter whether we are doing it via telephone, iPhone, or iPad (hopefully while not listening to Justin Bieber).

So, what are your thoughts? Do you worry about being dated? Is this even a concern?

Query Letters DO Work

This is a quick note to tell you exciting news. I have another article up—this one is in an LA print magazine called Working World. It’s a two-page feature on “How to Avoid Online Job Scams.” When the link appears on their website, I’ll add it to the blog, but for now you’ll have to pick it up here in LA.

I found this opportunity through, yes, a query letter. For those not in the know, a query letter is a quick missive (usually an email these days) to an editor pitching an article, screenplay, or book proposal.

Many writers I talk to deride the query letter as last century. They say nowadays editors only read tweets, find friends through Facebook, or use established writers. But I disagree, and I have proof. Editors are always on the lookout for new writers. You don’t have to be a friend, you don’t have to be connected at all (though it helps) to make it over the transom. You just have to write.

Before writing a query letter, find out what the publication is looking for. You can find listings of editors seeking freelancers online at mediabistro.com or in a newer version of Writer’s Market. Be realistic; Time probably want news journalism, Poetry may take your haikus. Never vice versa. Trust me.

The best query letters are short. They are well-formatted, too. For example if it is an email, do not add too many fonts or colors. In terms of tone, they are actionable, enthusiastic, and polite. Provide some background in the first few sentences and then quickly let the editor know what you want to write. I never propose ideas I am not very excited to write about. I also provide links to my past articles in my queries. Then I sign off. Remember, short is good. You can work out details later. For now, it is best to send…and wait.

Sometimes this wait takes days and sometimes months. More often than not, there is no response. That’s normal, too. You can always send a follow-up, but sometimes it is like staring into an abyss. But write enough query letters and you are bound to hear from someone. Trust me. I didn’t believe in the query letter either.

What is your experience with the dreaded query letter? I would like to know in the comments.