Saturday, April 28, 2012

Hey Mister! Can I Have Your Kindlegraph?

If you're an avid lover of the written word like I am, your prized possessions may include a few books autographed by their authors. Many signed books adorn my bookcase, personally inscribed in unique scrawls by authors ranging from Stephen King to Hunter S. Thompson to Lisa Scottoline to Raymond Khoury to Shaquille O'Neal, to name just a few. There's something very cool about having a book like that. A signed book is a physical extension of its author, in that she personally handled it and wrote a few words in the particular copy that rests now in some prime spot on your bookshelf.

As an author, I've cramped up my writing hand and gone through lots of pens signing copies of my books for readers. It's a fun way to meet and connect with my audience, as well as to give readers something of myself beyond what's between the covers of the standard hardcover or paperback book. My inscription policy is fairly liberal -- I'll write just about anything in a reader's book that she asks me to, unless it's illegal, immoral, or could be interpreted by an objective third party as my confession to some high crime or misdemeanor (minor traffic infractions excluded). My signed books have become more popular than I ever imagined they would; so much so that we had to build a "store" on my personal website where readers can order personally inscribed copies of Blood of the Moon.

Despite my aforementioned liberal inscription policy, the vast majority of what I'm requested to include in an inscription is the routine, "Hope you enjoy the book" type of thing. A lot of the other requests have been funny. Some have been cryptic. A few have been just plain strange. The inscription weirdness award, however, doesn't go to some phrase I was asked to inscribe, but to what I was asked to sign. Not so long ago, a young woman recognized me in a Starbucks. After confirming my identity, she asked if I would sign her copy of Blood of the Moon. I told her I'd be happy to, and asked for her copy. She replied by inquiring if there was a Staples or Office Depot nearby, so she could get a pen. I told her I had a pen, but she said it wasn't the right type for what she had in mind. I told her there was a Staples close by, and off she went. A few minutes later she returned, thrusting her iPhone and a Sharpie at me. "Your book's in my phone. Make it out to Marcie," she said. After receiving her assurance that she was serious, I shrugged and made it out to Marcie.

I recall that episode often as ever more book sales by all authors in all genres migrate from physical copies to e-books read on Kindles, Nooks, and the other e-readers we all know. When Blood of the Moon was first published, out of every dozen or so copies sold only one was an e-book edition in any format. Presently, that ratio has completely reversed itself.

No, I've not been asked to grab a Sharpie and sign anyone's Kindle or Nook.


In some small way, the rising prevalence of e-books makes me a little sad in that regard. I like signing copies of my books for my readers, at least as much as my readers like having me sign their copies. And as I said, signing someone's book is a bonding experience between author and reader. It seemed to me that this time-honored element of the author-reader relationship would be driven all but extinct by e-books.

I'm happy to report that my sadness may be misplaced.

As in all the other ways that technology's incessant march is fundamentally impacting the business of writing, making, promoting and selling books, the art of the author's personal inscription is also being transformed by a new form of electronic wizardry. Short of physically signing a reader's e-reader (or iPhone, as the case may be), there's now another method for an author to autograph e-books for her readers. Created by a former Amazon programmer named Evan Jacobs and available at the moment only for Kindle e-books, this new platform is called Kindlegraph.

The company's website says Kindlegraph is a digital inscription service that "lets authors send personalized inscriptions and signatures directly to the electronic reading devices of their fans." In its recent review of the service, explained Kindlegraph this way: "To personalize their e-book, users log in with their Twitter credentials and select from a list of popular e-books... After selecting an e-book, a request is then sent to the author who, after logging in, will see a list of current requests. There is space to type a personalized message, and clicking 'Kindlegraph it' will send the message to Docusign APIs which embed the signed message and sends a PDF back to the reader's Kindle." Requesting, sending and receiving Kindlegraphs are free (though if a reader uses Amazon's Personal Document Service to receive the Kindlegraph on her Kindle, Amazon may charge a nominal delivery fee per Amazon's applicable Terms of Service). Interestingly, readers don't have to own or buy an author's book to request her Kindlegraph, nor do readers even need to own a Kindle to receive her Kindlegraph, and virtually any book (even hardcovers and paperbacks) can be Kindlegraphed. As of this writing, over 15,000 e-books by 3,500 authors participate in the Kindlegraph service.

I'm one of those authors. If you have a Kindle edition of Blood of the Moon, and/or Trust and Other Nightmares (or even if you don't) and you'd like my Kindlegraph, get my virtual ballpoint rolling by clicking here, logging in via your Twitter account, and giving Kindlegraph a try.

Currently, an author's Kindlegraph inscription is rendered by default in either a "typewriter" or a "handwriting" font. Authors with access to appropriate technology may elect to hand write their signatures, but not their inscriptions. Jacobs is considering developments permitting authors to write both their inscriptions and their autographs by hand. Until then, you'll have to pardon Kindlegraph authors if their inscriptions or signatures look a bit robotic.

Perhaps I was mistaken thinking the young lady who asked me to sign her iPhone was a little batty. It appears she might just have been a step or two ahead of her time.

"Yesterday's weirdness is tomorrow's reason why."
~~Hunter S. Thompson~~

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Author Spotlight: David Baldacci

With the 1996 release of his debut international blockbuster Absolute Power, David Baldacci reached the pinnacles of bestseller lists worldwide. He has remained there since, through more than 20 novels and 16 years. Over 110 million copies of his books are in print, in 45 languages. In the long history of the written word, the list is very short of authors in any genre who have achieved Baldacci's heights of popular success even briefly, much less who have made a lasting career of it. As importantly and in addition to his string of authorial triumphs, Baldacci is dedicated to a number of very worthy charitable pursuits. Among them, he's a National Multiple Sclerosis Society ambassador. Also, he and his wife Michelle have established a national literacy program called the Wish You Well Foundation, whose laudable mission is "supporting family literacy in the United States by fostering and promoting the development and expansion of new and existing literacy and educational programs." Clearly, doing good motivates the man as much as good writing.

Despite his whirlwind schedule, Baldacci continues to write gripping thrillers that enthrall readers all round the globe. His latest book, released just yesterday, is titled The Innocent. With breakneck pacing, it tells the story of America's most lethal assassin emerging from the shadows and breaking all the rules to save one teenage girl's life, at the risk of his own. Suspense Magazine says The Innocent is "One of the best Baldacci's best since Absolute Power," and we agree.

Gazalapalooza is thrilled Baldacci found time to take a seat for a few minutes under the blazing hot high beam of the Author Spotlight. As you can see, the Klieg lights are fired up, and so is our esteemed guest. Without further ado, let's get this Spotlight underway.

Gazala:    In my omnipotence, I've sentenced you to be stranded alone on a desert island for offenses best left unnamed. In my beneficence, I've decided to allow you a limited amount of reading material to make your stay a little less bleak than it would otherwise be. I'll spot you your religious text of preference, and the collected works of William Shakespeare. In addition to those, name the one fiction book, and the one nonfiction book, you'd choose to take with you, and why you choose them. 

Baldacci:    The book of nonfiction would be the ever-popular How To Get Off a Desert Island In Five Easy Steps. I think the reasoning is fairly obvious. The work of fiction would be The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. When one is stranded on a desert island, it's good to read about bleak post-apocalyptic misery if only to show that someone has it worse than you in order to keep your spirits up while you're waiting for the Titanic to come by and rescue you.

Gazala:     Your latest book, titled The Innocent, is an excellent and gripping thriller about stone cold hit man Will Robie transitioning from hunter to hunted while protecting himself and a teenage runaway from the shadowy powers behind a vast cover-up. I've read it. I enjoyed it immensely, and recommend it highly. Shockingly enough, however, from time to time my bare recommendation doesn't always motivate a book's potential reader to become a book's actual reader. Tell us something about The Innocent, and why its potential reader should make the leap and become its actual reader. 

Baldacci:    There are two plots in this novel and you don't know which is more important or whether they're connected. Will Robie is a predator who works alone and prefers it that way. In this story he has to become a guardian angel and responsible for someone else, a young teen named Julie Getty.  They are both on the run. They seemingly have no connection to each other. They don't really trust or like each other. But they have to depend on one another to survive. It takes all of what we think we know about human nature and turns it upside down. It will give you one of the biggest "Aha" moments of your life. And did I mention the amazing twist at the end? If that doesn't do it for you, I'm out of bullets.

Gazala:     What are books for?

Baldacci:    You can either read them or burn them. If we have more people who read them, life is far better. Reading is the same verb as thinking. Can't do one without the other. If the burners win out, we have Hitler.

Gazala:     W. Somerset Maugham said, "There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are." Do you agree, or disagree, and why? 

Baldacci:    Agree. Only I didn't think it was three rules that we didn't know what they are, I thought it was only one. Sartre could probably figure that out for us, if he were still alive, but it's beyond this humble mind. Best advice I ever got about writing came from two-time Academy Award-winning screenwriter William Goldman. He told me the moment you think you know what you're doing as a writer is the moment you lose it as a writer. Be afraid with every project that you can't bring the magic again. Fear is a great antidote to complacency and formula. You're writing books, not building widgets.

Gazala:     There's an eerie scratching sound on my attic floor I have to investigate. Ask yourself a question, and answer it. 

Baldacci:    Q: Why do you write? A: I can't not write. If you can't honestly say that, then find something else to do with your life. Otherwise, it's too damn hard.

The Innocent is available right now at retailers everywhere. If you'd like to order your copy from Amazon, we've made it simple for you -- all you have to do is click here.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The College Common Application: Ruminations on A Racket

'Tis the season -- countless high school seniors' breathless daily jaunts to the mailbox to see what colleges they'll be attending when the leaves start to turn next fall. Perhaps grimacing at the slim business envelopes containing brief, impersonal rejection letters printed over a college admission's officer rubber-stamped signature. Rejoicing when the mailbox moans bearing the weight of an over-sized envelope stuffed with a cavalcade of forms to be completed and returned scant weeks in advance of setting foot on the campus that was the object of desire and hope for many months past.

In the 1970's, when we were high school seniors applying to colleges and the Internet wasn't yet a gleam in anyone's eyes but DARPA's, each of our college applications was a painstakingly hand-crafted document. Each application required a lot of time, thought and work. Every august institution of higher learning had its own particular paper application that was the non-negotiable price of the ticket to be considered for admission.The majority of applications were handwritten. The more technologically courageous of us pecked out our applications on primitive machines, one long application at a time, with Royal typewriter keys slapping black ink into blank application spaces late into night after night. That was the way we filled out our applications to college, and that was the way millions of students did so before and for a good while after us.

The rigorous (if tedious) process of filling out applications meant that we only applied to a handful of colleges, ranging from ones we were confident would grant us admission, to one or two that roosted on the loftiest perches of our grandest collegiate ambitions. No one I knew applied to more than six colleges, and most applied to five or fewer. We applied only to the schools we were genuinely interested in attending, and we would have been pleased to invest four years of study at any one of the schools to which we applied.

The applications themselves were replete with essay questions. The requirement per application of a half dozen or more 500+ word essays on a variety of topics was far more the norm than the exception. I remember distinctly my response to one essay question in my damn-the-torpedoes application to Harvard University. The query asked were I admitted, what unique gifts I would bring to Harvard. Surging with youthful hubris, my essay began, "Ask not what I can do for Harvard, but what Harvard can do for me."

 I was not admitted to Harvard.

Times have changed, and like everything else DARPA's baby has touched in the past couple of decades, the Internet has restructured the college application process. Today, the overwhelming majority of collegiate applications are completed and submitted online, via the "Common Application." As of this writing, the Common Application is the preferred application method for 456 higher learning institutions in 46 states and the District of Columbia (as well universities in France, Germany, Italy, Scotland and Switzerland). For 148 of those 456 schools, the Common Application is the only permissible way to apply for admission.

While participating colleges are free to require additional information or responses to those on the Common Application's standard face, most don't. Those that do, don't necessarily solicit replies to additional essay questions. Reading essays takes time, you see.

How many essay questions are required by the standard Common Application? One -- "an essay of 250 to 500 words," on one of six topics. That's it. That's the entire extent of original, creative and well-reasoned writing demanded of college aspirants on the standard Common Application.

I've seen Thanksgiving grocery shopping lists with more than 250 words.

Regardless of the discipline, including mathematics and the hard sciences, effective writing is the crux of meaningfully recording and communicating ideas. There is no substitute for it. Accordingly, at the very least it's strange that the currently preferred procedure for millions of applicants to gain admittance to our citadels of higher learning deemphasizes rigorous writing.

The intriguing inquiry is, who benefits more from the point-and-click college application system: the applicants, or the colleges?

At first glance, you could think the Common Application benefits applicants most. After all, the point-and-click nature of the Common Application allows (if not encourages, as we'll see below) high school seniors to apply to any number of colleges with ease. Unlike just a few years ago, today it's the exception, rather than the rule, that high school seniors apply to less than ten colleges. Many file applications to more than ten colleges, limited only by how much money they and their families can afford to spend on admission application fees. And why not? Fill out the Common Application online, arm yourself with a credit card, and start clicking like you're on Amazon or ebay. Even if some of those schools want an additional question or two answered in an addendum to the Common Application, the applicant's investment in that extra work doesn't require that she fill out an entirely new application -- the vast majority of her application is exactly the same one she's already filled out and sent to all her other college choices.

If you think the Common Applications benefits applicants most, you think wrong.

Let's start by examining some U.S. college application and admission statistics from last year. UCLA had 61,513 applicants for its 15,551 freshman seats. Tulane's 2011 numbers were 37,751/9,376. The University of Virginia's were 24,010/7,750. Stanford's were 34,348/2,427. Duke's were 29,689/3,739. Georgetown's were 19,275/3,466. N.Y.U.'s were 42,242/10,831. In the aggregate, in 2011 just those seven Common Application schools collected almost 250,000 applications. They rejected about 80% of them. There's no reason to suppose the number of applications has decreased this year, nor to doubt the number of rejections hasn't concomitantly increased.

A typical college application fee is around $60.00 per application. Some are higher, some lower. But for broad stroke purposes, it's not infeasible to calculate that just those seven schools listed above raked in among themselves about 15 million dollars in application fees in 2011, and that about 12 million of those dollars were paid by rejected applicants.

I wonder how many applications, and attendant fees, those schools would have received had each institution required its own distinct application. A lot less, I'd guess. Likely a whole lot less.

In addition to the obvious financial disincentive to separate themselves from the Common Application, there's another enticement to keep colleges gorging at the Common App trough. Colleges jockey hard to ever raise their status in the annual college rankings published by sources like Kiplinger and U.S. News & World Report. One of the metrics considered by such publications in their ranking systems is how many applications a college receives per available incoming freshman seat. That's supposed to reflect demand for admission to a given college. However, the nature of the point-and-click Common Application artificially inflates demand beyond (if not far beyond) what statistics might reveal about true demand if a college required a unique application, heavy on the essays.

Then of course, that college can point to the (artificially) high demand for its freshman seats as an excuse to jack up tuition every year at paces vastly outstripping general inflation rates. That's great for student loan providers, too; especially given student loans are one of the very few debt obligations from which American bankruptcy laws offer no sanctuary.

Under the purportedly benign guise of simplicity and standardization, the prevalence of the Common Application has the markers of a racket. And it's a racket from which applicants benefit not most, but least.

Besides, since when are simplicity and standardization always so wonderful? There are milestones in life where celebrating the uncommon roundly trumps the alternative. Realizing a young person's collegiate dreams is one of them. College applications should be full of essays mindfully expressing those dreams, and college admissions offices should be eager to read every one of those essays in assembling its incoming class each year.

When we throw open the doors to the hallowed halls of Gazalapalooza University (mascot: the Mighty Word Slinger), we will not accept the Common Application. We will have our own Uncommon Application. Our Uncommon Application will be abundant with exacting essay requirements. We'll gladly read and consider our applicants' essays, despite the inefficient and time-consuming nature of doing so. From the very start we will hammer home to our applicants the first and most important lesson of higher education -- that cogent writing ought to matter greatly in getting into college, and it will matter greatly in making a lasting mark in the world after college.

"I was taught that the way of progress was neither swift nor easy."
~~Marie Curie~~ 

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Author Spotlight: Malcolm Holt

Lots of the action in my thriller, Blood of the Moon, happens in the ancient English city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. I had great fun researching the city for my book, and came to develop a mild case of Newcastle envy during my research and writing -- so much so that Newcastle will feature prominently in the sequel to Blood of the Moon.

Given my Newcastlemania, I'm thrilled to have recently forged a relationship with the talented Newcastle crime fiction author, Malcolm Holt. In addition to his recent release of Hard Drive, an arresting anthology of crime short stories set in and around Newcastle, Holt also runs the highly entertaining and eclectic blog, "A Bit on The Side."  Whether in his short stories, his blog, or his replies to the brutal interrogation below, Holt's wry sense of humor is clearly evident in his writing. His humor served him well when he found himself seated on a hard wooden chair in a bare concrete room, surrounded by a circle of broiling white lights while manning up to the challenge of the Gazalapalooza Author Spotlight. Let's see how he fares, shall we?

Gazala:    In my omnipotence, I've sentenced you to be stranded alone on a desert island for offenses best left unnamed. In my beneficence, I've decided to allow you a limited amount of reading material to make your stay a little less bleak that it would otherwise be. I'll spot you your religious text of preference, and the collected works of William Shakespeare. In addition to those, name the one fiction book, and the one nonfiction book, you'd choose to take with you, and why you choose them.

Holt:    Well, the fiction choice is easy. Yeah right! Actually, I would probably go with the book I've read the most often, and that is Armadillos and Old Lace, written by the Texas mystery writer Kinky Friedman. I first met Kinky in Newcastle way back in 1999, I think, and he made me an honorary Texan. I've got all his books, and being that San Antonio, Texas, is my spiritual second home, and this story in this book is located there, I've always enjoyed reading that particular one. It's funny because, even though I know how it pans out, it's still great fun to read. I'm a great believer that humour plays an important role in life, and I find Kinky's novels great fun to read. It would keep my spirits up. The non-fiction choice is trickier. I would probably go with The Rough Guide to the USA. It's quite thick, and if I run out of firewood...

Gazala:    Your latest book, titled Hard Drive, is an excellent and gripping collection of six gritty crime stories set in and around Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the United Kingdom. I've read it. I enjoyed it immensely, and recommend it highly. Shockingly enough, however, from time to time my bare recommendation doesn't always motivate a book's potential reader to become a book's actual reader. Tell us something about Hard Drive, and why its potential reader should make the leap and become its actual reader.

Holt:    My sister reckons that Hard Drive suggests that I have a hidden dark side that's where my stories come from. Actually, since I was a kid I have always had a vivid imagination. Hard Drive is a collection of six short stories, which as well as being dark and gritty, also end with the reader wondering, "what happens next?" This is where the reader is invited to visit their own dark side and they start to imagine terrible things. I didn't deliberately set out to do that, it just happened. Looking back, I feel that it works. Of course, to really appreciate what I'm saying, you'll have to buy the book.

Gazala:    What are books for?

Holt:    My wife would say...for gathering dust in various corners of my house. However, with the arrival of e-books, there is less dust. For me, books are the gateway to fantasy land, whether that scares you or not. It's pure escapism that can take you anywhere, anytime. It's hard trying to watch a DVD in the bath. Books fuel the imagination.

Gazala:    W. Somerset Maugham said, "There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are." Do you agree, or disagree, and why?

Holt:    Well, there are three obvious rules. A book should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. All writers are different. I know some writers who start writing a novel with no plot at all. They just go with the flow. My only problem with that is knowing when you've finished. The three rules I abide by are...always have plenty of coffee, red wine, and a laptop charger to hand

Gazala:    There's a man with a burning pitchfork outside my door requesting a moment of my time. Ask yourself a question, and answer it.

Holt:    Where's the fire extinguisher? Sorry, that was too obvious. Q: When will I stop writing crime stories? A: When I stop breathing. Then I'll want to know, who dunnit?

So Holt broke a little bit of a sweat. You can't blame him -- it's a tough room. Besides, that light sweaty sheen makes him look as gutsy as one of his steely characters in Hard Drive. See for yourself, by grabbing your copy of the Hard Drive Kindle edition here if you're in the USA, or here if you're the United Kingdom.