Friday, April 27, 2012

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

#Twitter 104: Building a Following, Early Stages

Here's what I've been doing to get my Twitter kite off the ground.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Infrequently-Asked Questions, #2

Asked via Facebook:
Q) It's not an area I know much about, but are these 'iconic' designers?

Uncle Milty's Rules for Living

Infrequently-Asked Questions, #1

Kicking off a series in which I answer rarely-asked questions posed to me. It is guaranteed to enlighten few, and amuse even fewer.

Today's question arrived via an email from SodaHed:

Q) Are the sex robots coming soon?
A) Not soon enough.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The One Per Cent Solution & the Shape of Destiny

I had a passing discussion the other day with a writer to the effect that The Tijuana Brass and The Beatles were a vivid illustration that great art, of any sort, has a shape and form that people actively and passionately respond to.

Beneath the surface, the essential 'shape' of a Paul McCartney Beatles tune and a Herb Alpert TJB arrangement (both men personified the groups they pretended to be a mere part of) are the same. Otherwsise both would not have coexisted and thrived with such outwardly different music during the same cultural era. During the Beatles' rise, most musicians who did not swim in the same cultural stream - Sinatra comes to mind - got stranded on shore. Frustrated, many (such as Pat Boone and Bobby Darin) abandoned the material that had won them fame and adopted (unconvincingly) the outer trappings of their times. But men such as Herb Alpert, Paul McCartney and Paul Simon wrote and performed the music that conformed to the right 'shape' (as they saw it), rather than to the fickle cultural zeitgeist.

Does this ideal 'shape', if it exists, require a genius to identify it, or can it be found by anyone who cares to look? Below, Kurt Vonnegut performs an entertaining, tongue-in-cheek schtick describing the successful, 'beautiful shape' of a story.

But in a more serious vein, author Jan Tschichold in The Form of the Book: Essays on the Morality of Good Design (excerpted here) assures us that we - all of us - can and should learn to identify the 'right' shape of things:

"Personal typography is defective typography. Only beginners and fools will insist on using it. Perfect typography depends on perfect harmony between all of its elements. We must learn, and teach, what this means. Harmony is determined by relationships or proportions. Proportions are hidden everywhere: in the capaciousness of the margins, in the reciprocal relationships to each other of all four margins on the page of a book, in the relationship between the leading of the type area and dimensions of the margins, in the placement of the page number relative to the type area, in the extent to which capital letters are spaced differently from the text, and not least, in the spacing of the words themselves. In short, affinities are hidden in any and all parts."

Tschichold's excellent book (the comments at the Amazon link are also worth a look) goes on to describe how these hidden truths can be found. Notice that he clearly labels this process as a search for morality - not a search for beauty, as is commonly supposed. In this search, the selfish (personal) preferences must be set aside, even exorcized, in order for the hidden things to be identified.

The Geometry of God: The Striking Kaleidoscopic 
Patterns of European Cathedral Ceilings
Many of these structures were constructed in an era actively
occupied with ordering the heavens, and expressed in their
mathematical nature was a microcosm model of the universe
– perhaps in the belief that logic could explain or convey
the God to which these places of worship aimed to attest.
"Only through constant practice and strictest self-criticism may we develop a sense for a perfect piece of work. Unfortunately, most seem content with a middling performance."

So the great obstacle for most of us, in Tschichold's view, is not some lack of innate talent but simply a willingness to settle for less.

This idea is not at all limited to the visual. Tom Wolfe alluded to it in The Right Stuff, which professed that the job of being an astronaut, by its nature, was something more than a job. It was even more than a glamorous, high-profile job. It demanded almost-indefinable qualities that went beyond a set of skills, experience, and qualifications.

Beyond the individual's 'right stuff', proponents of Elliott Wave theory and Kondratieff Waves contend that our collective behavior, from wars to famines to market crashes, also conforms to 'proper' and elegant - and inevitable - patterns. It is said that these patterns are an integral part of our makeup as human beings. Elliott Wave is particularly interesting in that it extends beyond mankind to all of nature, linking the patterns and behavior of the smallest particle to the largest possible formation. It posits that both our follies and triumphs are, in a real sense, forces of nature as real and pervasive as gravity. It suggests how a great artist creates and shapes his works with interconnecting, dependent themes.

Beyond that, it has been said that there is a pattern that describes God. Mozart and Einstein alluded to and pursued this. This hugely famous book danced with the idea. Human history is filled with searches for the proper shape, the elegant description, or the mathematically-pleasing construct that conveys a sense of the I Am.

One theme of The Patriots of Mars is that human destiny conforms to such shapes, and that it is possible (and wise) to learn to intuit their form. With that in mind, consider the chart at right. The first column, 'range', shows all available resources, in ten percent increments, up to a theoretical 100% of wealth at bottom. The second column shows what percentage of the population owns or controls each increment of wealth. The final column, a color bar, offers a breakdown of the numbers. As you can see, the largest group by far is the middle class, and a very small percentage - the infamous One Percent, controls a disproportionate share of wealth.

No doubt you have heard this before. Perhaps you got it from the New York Times or the Daily Kos or Paul Krugman or Think Progress. These numbers are indisputable, except for one caveat:

They're not from any economist. They're from Pinterest.

The numbers measure the system-wide influence (info at link) of the images uploaded by various Pinterest users. In a new, closed system that is about as close to a meritocracy as one might hope for in this world, Pinterest displays the same heavily-skewed wealth distribution curve the Times has been bleating about for years now. It is the same 'unfairness' writers complain about when they see the great wealth accumulated by the likes of James Patterson or Stephen King and contrast it with their own meager holdings.

But what if - rather than painting this colossal disparity as indicative of a sick system that 'needs intervention' - we recognize this as the true shape of a healthy system and work from that premise to ease the burden of the disadvantaged among us?

Of course, this will never happen. As Jan Tschichold observes, most people will choose never to see it. But Tschichold also knew that a few will always see for themselves, and that those few were worth his reaching out, because they are the ones who change the world.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The 'state of the indie author' report

Paraphrasing (for brevity) Jeff Bezos, the guy building a private space venture, a ten-thousand year clock, and some rinky-dink operation called Amazon:

"I am emphasizing self-service platforms because even well-meaning gatekeepers slow innovation. When a platform is self-service, even the improbable ideas can get tried, because there’s no expert gatekeeper ready to say “that will never work!” And guess what – many of those improbable ideas do work, and society is the beneficiary of that diversity.

Kindle Direct Publishing has quickly taken on astonishing scale – more than a thousand KDP authors now each sell more than a thousand copies a month, some have already reached hundreds of thousands of sales, and two have already joined the Kindle Million Club. KDP is a big win for authors. Authors who use KDP get to keep their copyrights, keep their derivative rights, get to publish on their schedule – a typical delay in traditional publishing can be a year or more from the time the book is finished – and … saving the best for last … KDP authors can get paid royalties of 70%. The largest traditional publishers pay royalties of only 17.5% on ebooks (they pay 25% of 70% of the selling price which works out to be 17.5% of the selling price). The KDP royalty structure is completely transformative for authors. A typical selling price for a KDP book is a reader-friendly $2.99 – authors get approximately $2 of that! With the legacy royalty of 17.5%, the selling price would have to be $11.43 to yield the same $2 per unit royalty. I assure you that authors sell many, many more copies at $2.99 than they would at $11.43.

Kindle Direct Publishing is good for readers because they get lower prices, but perhaps just as important, readers also get access to more diversity since authors that might have been rejected by establishment publishing channels now get their chance in the marketplace. You can get a pretty good window into this. Take a look at the Kindle best-seller list, and compare it to the New York Times best-seller list – which is more diverse? The Kindle list is chock-full of books from small presses and self-published authors, while the New York Times list is dominated by successful and established authors."

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Age of the Cloistered Idea

Part One of the series Think Outside the Book.

Today I posted a Pinterest board for The Patriots of Mars. The board's empty, and will remain so until the book's out.

When the book is released, the board will fill with related quotes. These will actually be images, of course. Quotation-images  and Infographics are swelling concerns on the 'net these days. The Pinterest boards trafficking in quotes are some of the busiest on that service. Facebook has spawned a sprawling cottage industry trafficking in such things. Few attempt to make a point on Facebook anymore without leveraging an image, and that image usually involves type.

The old saw has it that a picture is worth a thousand words. In terms of 'message-capacity', if you will, a square inch of image packs more immediate punch than a block of text that size. And in a Darwinistic jungle of fast-moving messages fighting for limited attention, immediate impact can be crucial.

In this context, it's easy to understand Facebook's billion-dollar purchase of Instagram this week. Images are the future of the web, and text-images have great power.

For the first time in history, the average person can routinely communicate graphically. This was impossible via telephone or its electronic antecedents. It was possible via book, newspaper or television - but only for the few who were publishers or broadcasters. The only way for the average person to be graphically-empowered in his/her communications was to buy a Hallmark card.

This means people are becoming accustomed to thinking not just in words or numbers, but in terms of the capabilities of LOLcats, PowerPoint presentations, YouTube clips, and countless other message-image generator services.

It also means that folks buying books in this booming e-book market have a different mindset than readers had during the great paperback explosion of the 1930's.

In the past, reading as a skill remained the same regardless of the media. Whether it was a newspaper, book, or street sign, a reader went about his/her task in more or less the same way. But in a world of hypertext, two readers can come away from a paragraph with vastly different ideas, depending on which links they pursued.

The common assumption is that ebooks will increasingly contain links and interactive features such as YouTube clips. But that's not a new idea, nor is it what will differentiate e-books from all that came before.

This essay began with a mention of quotes from Patriots. We live in a world that sees and wants its ideas in pre-packaged quotes - not open-ended links. Ours is a world of processed goods and service industries, of Reader's Digest, Cliff's Notes, and an apparently endless supply of pundits to offer up platitudes a la carte. Our world wants its ideas packaged, and its options contracted - not expanded. Simplicity and convenience is the thought-merchant's credo, if (s)he wants to be successful. The future of e-books is not in opening up new doors via links to the wider web. Of course that will be (and is being) done, but that's not the Next Big Thing. (My upcoming Patriots is quite heavily linked, in anticipation of a classroom edition which will be even moreso.)

The true e-book has yet to arrive. What we have seen so far are afterthoughts - ghosts - from the print world. Occasionally, an ambitious publisher pushes out what amounts to a book-length website. These are not true products of the newly-emerging tablet medium. The e-book-to-come demands a new approach to creating literature  - an approach for which the term 'writing' seems inadequate. This approach will be so different that I don't have a fitting name to suggest for it. But I believe it will form itself around the public's love of the superficially cloistered idea-byte we call a quote.

While this new form has yet to be seen, we have seen its ancestors. We are quite accustomed to familiar song snippets slipped into new songs, TV or movies in order to lend them some of the meaning and flavor (and appeal) of the original. And some of us have seen the works of installation artists such as Jenny Holzer (pictured above).

The next installment of this series will begin to explore Holzer's lifetime of work and what it means to the coming writing revolution.

Thursday, April 12, 2012


While you work hard to get the word out when you publish a book, what puts it over the top (if that's meant to happen) is serendipity. Serendipity is a funny concept, and apparently difficult to explain to some cultures.

Harry Potter? Two major counts of serendipity. The first was a publisher who had no great interest in the book being nagged by his young daughter, to whom he had given the manuscript. To appease her, he printed 250 copies and shipped them off to libraries. With no faith in the book's prospects, no marketing effort was made. The second count was that the librarians liked and recommended the book often enough that it began to gain traction, and get reviews. After that - well, you know.

The best things are usually not what you're trying to accomplish. Two months ago serendipity sent the charming and intuitive Linda Stone my way. Then a few weeks ago a serendipitous book review came to me. 

Yesterday a friend sent me a very charming and creative music video which seemed to be inexplicably gathering dust on a YouTube shelf. I decided it deserved a better fate, and began spreading the word around.

One of my Facebook friends who got the link, Walt Gilbert, loved the video and wound up giving me and The Patriots of Mars a kind and unexpected boost. (Thanks again, Walt!)

If the book does well, I expect the many hours I spend promoting it will mean much less than all the factors I can't control. Mood-swings (favorable or otherwise) of the reading public, emerging news, and the financial fortunes of Amazon are out of my hands. Serendipity is difficult to explain, impossible to manufacture, and completely critical to success. There's nothing to be done but accept it.

The book's not actually out yet, by the way. But the opening prologue is online. My Facebook friends will all get a free copy, so if you like what you see stop by my page and 'friend' me.

Meanwhile - here's that video. You won't recognize it, but that's one of ABBA's most famous songs - and their final recording ever.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

#Twitter 103: Why bother?

The path I'm taking with Twitter means a lot of hard-slogging work. A lot of folks ask, 'Why bother?'. And in fact, I can already see that most folks don't bother. And won't!

I was going to address this later on in the series, but since a list of reasons was just handed to me (in a Tweet, natch), and since it's good form to be well-motivated before tackling a project like this, I'll just repeat them below:

Here are 15 reasons why you need to get started building and growing a significant and relevant network on Twitter:

1. To have access to a group of people that you can refer to for advice 24/7.
2. To generate targeted traffic to your sites and portfolio. The larger your network, the more people will visit your site (if the site is of interest and of relevance to them).
3. To develop friendships and relations with people you otherwise might never have met.
4. To add credibility to your brand, your business and your website.
5. To expand your pool of potential collaborators.
6. As a means to introduce your work to large numbers of people who are already interested in you, without disturbing those that are not.
7. To build your online presence as an industry leader.
8. To widen the net of potential new clients who pick up on your work.
9. As a means to gather feedback on your projects from around the world almost instantly.
10. As a way for your updates to easily be shared, and even go viral within the Twitter system.
11. To let people who are interested keep up to date with you wherever you are in the world, for free, in real time without the need to write long posts.
12. For people to see your human side beyond your more regimented portfolio updates.
13. To refer or be referred by others easily and efficiently.
14. To help your own creativity and spark new ideas from updates that you see.
15. To boost and grow your social interaction for those who tend to work independently.

Of course all this needs to be done in a legitimate, organic manner that is congruent with the people you are interacting with. It’s not about spamming, aggressive following, being manipulative or being destructive.
Growing your network should be a gradual process, that introduces you and what you stand for to the people who want to know about you in the first place.

Well-said. Now, this enterprising fellow has a Twitter booklet to sell. Seeing as he handed me this post, I'll let him do it.

Friday, April 6, 2012

#Twitter 102: The Zen of Social Media

This series is 'The Zen of Twitter'. It's not 'The Zen of Facebook' (or LinkedIn or Pinterest or Reddit, etc.), because the essence of those services at least seems straightforward to the average user. But Twitter's stark simplicity makes its purpose elusive, and its governing rules aren't self-evident.

In approaching these social platforms, I ask the same basic question you probably do: How can this help me achieve my goal?

I'm an author. The average author defines his (or her) goal as selling books. Therefore, the purpose of Twitter, to someone like me, is to sell books. Therefore, Twitter is for sending Tweet after Tweet about one's books.

Yet we can sense right away that this approach is, at best, limited. At worst, it's repellant. I've been in chat rooms full of authors who complain how sick they are of seeing endless sales Tweets, then turn around and crank out their daily quota. And when sales flag, they're likely to Tweet even harder.

Selling books - selling anything, really - is like making a butterfly land on your finger. Which is to say: You can't. You can only create an optimal situation for the butterfly to choose to land on your finger.

An artist should intuitively understand that concept, since creating worthwhile art is pretty much the same elusive process. The fact that so many fail to grasp this suggests that their work lacks this same ephemeral but vital quality.

For many users, social-media tools become a trap. The numbers these things measure can easily become the goal of using these platforms. Which, obviously, they should not be. In fact, so compelling does this stuff become that these tool providers encourage their users to broadcast these numbers, despite the fact that they are, in themselves, relatively meaningless noise. (Which many readers could merely wind up resenting.)

We've all encountered the SEO hucksters offering to 'sweeten' our Facebook 'likes', or our blog traffic, Twitter followers, etc., for a few bucks. That's very tempting to those of us who aren't celebrities (i.e., most of us) and subsist at the low end of the social totem pole.

Here's where this path leads, though. Recently I encountered a young, media-savvy author (I won't name him, no point calling him out) whose indie YA sci-fi book was selling well. He had a respectable number of Amazon reviews, plenty of 'likes' on his book's Facebook page, and tens of thousands of Twitter followers. It certainly looked as if his book was ripe to spill onto the laps of a much larger audience.

But when I checked his blog, I noticed very few comments on the posts. When I checked his Tweets, I saw that he was offering his followers rote cut-and-paste rote responses. (It was certainly not a newsfeed I'd sign up for, and the guy was no celebrity, so what was the appeal?) Also, he had no personal FB page, only a page for his book. Digging further into his website, I saw the remnants of SEO gaming (if you're savvy enough, you can spot at least some of them).

In theater parlance, this guy had 'papered the house'.

It's understandable to want to attract a crowd to one's business. But it's all-too-common to mistake a large number of 'followers' for a meaningful achievement. Twitter's not an end - it's a means to an end.

But what is that end for an author, if not to sell books? If we accept the premise that tweeting won't make that butterfly land on your finger, what is an achievable social-media goal? And if it's not earning income, why bother?

Speaking for myself: My goal is to elicit a core 'social behavior' from the social platforms I use. Achieving this goes beyond the usual rules, tricks, metrics, wiseguy-workarounds, 'helper' apps and other ephemera that are the red meat of most 'how-to' posts you'll find. To me, this is the Zen of Social Media.

Like a garden, social media must be cultivated. There is no better (i.e., faster) approach to what I, at least, consider its successful and proper implementation. In the next installment, I'll describe recent happy instances of the 'social behavior' that I've seen in my own little tended garden.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

#Twitter 101: Desperately Seeking Zen

Let's start off by saying I'm no Twitter Expert. If you want advice from a Twitter Expert, there are tons of them out there. I can't vouch for their expertise one way or another, but they're out there.

Maybe you knew that before you came here, and came anyway. Maybe you just found out, and are now looking (understandably) for the exits. Maybe I'd better give you a reason to stick around!

Try this on for size: While I don't know much about Twitter, I do know something about Zen. And it is the essence of Zen to realize that one never completely knows the answer one seeks.

Yet Twitter Experts promise to completely unravel its mystery - some in just 24 hours!

So while my Twitter expertise falls well short of 'expert', on the Zen side of things I think I can hold my own. In fact, let's test that theory. Here's a search for the words 'Twitter' and 'Zen'. How many results pursue the true nature (Zen) of Twitter? Not many. Let's look at them.

Mashable offers Four Tips for Productive Tweeting: (1) Approach With a Beginner’s Mind, (2) Give What You Want to Receive, (3) Only Add Useful Content, and (4) See Differently. Good advice in general, and certainly a healthy (IMO) approach to what you send out there in that little box. But it does not try to parse the essence of Twitter.

Next: Ten Steps To Twitter Zen. Six more steps than the last post: (1) Be Yourself, Be Nice, (2) You Must Give In Order to Receive, (3) Follower Count Isn’t Everything, (4) Conversation Is Not One-Way, (5) Mix It Up A Little, (6) Know The Proper Way To DM (direct message), (7) A Non-Follow-Back Is Not Cause For Concern, (8) If You Want to Increase The Likelihood of a Follow Back… (9) You Can Always Unfollow, (10) Give Thanks. This comes a little closer to what we're after, but most of his advice is, again: 'Be courteous, interact, be generous'.

Let's lay our cards on the table: If you're an ass in real life, you'll be an ass on Twitter. And if you make a nuisance of yourself on Twitter, no advice of mine can possibly help you, aside from this: Get someone with the necessary social skills, creativity and wit to do your tweeting for you.

Back to the Ten Steps. Items (3) and (7-9) suggest what we're after, which is the nature of Twitter itself in terms of its design intent and function. We must also account, as Twitter must, for the behavior of the folks using it. As someone who once constructed messages for marketing and political campaigns, this is an area where I can claim some insight.

Next up: Free Course: A Zen Peacekeeper Guide to Twitter. This seems to be on the right track - and the price is right. In fact, it's too on-the-nose. We're immediately shown images of Buddha and a woman meditating. Not to mention links to yoga - and what's up with peacekeeping? Maybe it's just me, but I'm starting to feel a little squishy here.

Pressing on into the seldom-seen second page of Google's results, there's something called Achieving Twitter Zen. It's a list of possibly-useful software enhancements for using Twitter. Again, not what we're after.

Another post called Twitter Zen tells us: The social media microblogging site Twitter has a Zen quality. The premise of Twitter? Answer the question “what are you doing”? Each post, called a tweet is like a haiku – a fluid expression of a moment in time... unburdened by verbosity (there is a 140 character limit on Twitter posts) as our human travails and observations are expressed. Little life moments. Experienced and shared. Happening.

Another Twitter Zen post, this one by Stephen Foskett, offers a no-nonsense series of four concise lessons designed to cover the basics for the newbie. At a glance, it looks pretty thorough in that regard. Here it lays out what Twitter is, and isn't:

The most important concept to grasp is the fundamental nature of Twitter: It is an ongoing, global, democratic conversation. It is not a blog, USENET, Facebook or MySpace, or an instant message platform, though it does have certain elements of all of those.

That helps, though if you're a Twitter newbie you might also not know what a blog, USENET, Facebook or MySpace are, either. But it's a start, and this writer goes on to offer some good observations. It's worth reading.

Ask yourself: Is becoming a 'Twitter expert' your goal? Or is Twitter only a means to an end? I'm in the latter camp, and I suspect you are too. (Otherwise, you'd have left by now!)

With that in mind, I'll stick with the basic practices and tools in the posts ahead. I'll review what I'm doing and why, and what I believe the Zen of the thing is. The first practical lesson has already begun: The headline of this piece starts with a hash tag (#), which in the Twitterverse is shorthand for a searchable topic. This post appears not only on this blog, but as a Tweet that opens with a popular search term. I'll show how that works in a future installment.

Meanwhile, Mr. Foskett's piece looks like a solid Twitter primer, with some good 'Zen' points to expand on later.