Saturday, May 26, 2012

Will Chuck Woolery Do My Book Trailer?

It's tough world out there for the vast majority of authors, especially fiction authors. The roster of "traditional" publishers has shrunk markedly over the past several years, while the number of books independently- and self-published has exploded. The number of book stores, whether chain or independent, plummets without apparent end, while ever more books are published exclusively in electronic formats. More and more authors vie in an increasingly crowded marketplace for the finite attentions and dollars of potential readers incessantly bombarded by a burgeoning array of recreational options.

Even those fiction authors who choose to sign up with the handful of remaining"traditional" publishers soon learn that their publishers spend the overwhelming bulk of marketing money, time and effort promoting bestselling authors already famous the world over. (Incidentally, that's one of the causes of the traditional book publishing model's current malaise, but we'll revisit that topic another time.)

Writing a good book can easily be less challenging than getting that good book noticed.

Over the past few years, one of the go-to tools new authors have deployed in trying to create that invaluable buzz for their books has been the so-called book trailer. When my first book, Blood of the Moon, came out not too long ago, book trailers were still fairly shiny and new. They were labeled an indispensable marketing mechanism to give a new book by a new author sufficient gleam to attract attention and sales. Since then, YouTube, Facebook, Goodreads and their ilk are stuffed to the gills with countless book trailers that receive as little meaningful notice as the books and authors the trailers purport to promote.

It's coming to this: to get people to pay attention to your new book, first you have to get them to pay attention to your new book's trailer.

(As an aside, it's amusing to think about what kind of book trailers might have been produced for books published in times less electronic than now. Pick a favorite or famous book released before 2000, and imagine what its author might have put together for a book trailer. Forget about the movie version, if the book that comes to your mind was adapted for film. What would the trailer for J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye look like in 1951? Or the one for 1994's Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, by James Finn Garner? At this particular moment, I'm enjoying picturing a trailer for Donald Bain's cheesy fictionalized stewardess tell-all published in 1967, Coffee, Tea or Me.)

What's a smart way to get your book trailer noticed? Debut novelist Jennifer Miller pondered that very question for her publicity campaign to support the release a couple weeks ago of her new book, The Year of the Gadfly. Miller's story is about a teenage reporter at a posh prep school. It happens that Miller's father, Aaron David Miller, knows a lot of famous reporters from his tenure at the Woodrow Wilson Center, and his work before that in the U.S. State Department advising six Secretaries of State. So Miller teamed up with her dad, and spent a year getting in touch with some of his famous journalistic contacts, as well as at least one former Secretary of State. Some of them agreed to appear on video, reading selections from her book. The end result is a clever five minute book trailer, featuring excerpts of her book read aloud by renown reporters Christiane Amanpour, Sam Donaldson, Andrea Mitchell, and Brian Williams. In what I'm confident is an unprecedented coup for a novel's book trailer, former Secretary of State James Baker also contributes a reading snippet to Miller's promotional video.

For better or worse, we live in a celebrity-driven culture, so getting a few notable personalities to contribute to Miller's book trailer is a smart move. It will certainly gain her and her book some attention she might not otherwise have won with a more mundane approach. You want some proof? Exhibit A: Right now I'm writing about it, and you're reading about it. Kudos to Miller for that. We'll have to wait and see whether her shrewd book trailer strategy translates into sales for her novel. It definitely can't hurt.

Imitation is the greatest form of flattery, and Miller's trailer has me thinking. I don't have access to the Millers' celebrity Rolodex, but I'd sure like to get a handful of willing glitterati to read selections from Blood of the Moon, or Trust and Other Nightmares. Miller has already plumbed the journalism ranks. Since I'm skeptical Jon Stewart, Chuck Norris or Mick Jagger will indulge me, I'm leaning toward eminent game show hosts. Game show hosts rule. I don't know any, nor do I think I know anybody who knows any, but I still think it would be awesome to do a book trailer with parts of my books stentoriously intoned by Chuck Woolery, Drew Carey, Pat Sajak, Alex Trebek, and Jeff Probst. Of course, one of my books is a thriller, and the other's a chiller -- not quite typical happy-go-lucky game show fodder. Still, you can't be a successful game show host without having maintained decorum and gravitas while witnessing many disturbing things. If these guys can't pull it off, no one can.

I already have book trailers for each of Blood of the Moon, and Trust and Other Nightmares. But, they're both fairly celebrity-free. So...

My kingdom for Chuck Woolery's direct dial number. Let me know if you can hook me up.

"The future is like a Japanese game show -- you have no idea what's going on."
~~Tracy Morgan~~

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Author Spotlight: Steve Berry

History matters. For an example of how profoundly our yesterdays intertwine with our todays in the art of writing modern historical thrillers, you needn't look further than the work of our Gazalapalooza Author Spotlight guest, perennially bestselling author Steve Berry. From his breakout 2003 novel The Amber Room, to his new book released just yesterday titled The Columbus Affair, humanity's heritage always plays a seminal role in each story Berry writes. Berry and his wife, Elizabeth, feel strongly enough about the importance of sheltering mankind's past from the ravages of its present, that they've established a charitable foundation called History Matters dedicated to assisting communities around the world with historic preservation and restoration projects. Combining his foundation's work with the approximately 11 million copies of his historical thrillers Berry currently has in print in 37 languages in 50 countries, and it's easy to see the man clearly knows his stuff, both historical and authorial.

Assiduous historical research is as much a hallmark of Berry's storytelling as is deft writing. Ancient secrets and hoary traps bedevil the unwary and unschooled alike in each of Berry's seven Cotton Malone novels, as well as in his three eBook original short stories, and his five stand-alone thrillers (of which The Columbus Affair is Berry's latest entry). A man so intimately familiar with unspeakable dangers past and present should fare well under the unrelentingly hot beam of the Gazalapalooza Author Spotlight. The Klieg lights are blazing. Without further ado, let's see how Mr. Berry handles the heat.

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.

Berry:    Centennial by James Michener would be my fiction choice.  A superb novel of history that is Michener's finest work. That would keep my mind occupied a long time. Non-fiction would be the best dictionary I could find. I've always wanted to study the English language in more detail.
Gazala:    Your latest book, titled The Columbus Affair, is an excellent and gripping thriller about a mystery five centuries old that challenges everything we think we know about the discovery of America. 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 Columbus Affair, and why its potential reader should make the leap and become its actual reader. 

Berry:    On the night of August 2, 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed from Spain with three ships and 87 men. Contrary to what Hollywood has portrayed, not a single priest was among those who made the journey. The Spanish Inquisition had begun. After midnight, on August 3, 1492, no Jews were legally allowed to reside within Spain, having been expelled six months earlier by Ferdinand and Isabella.

But that is only the beginning of the mystery.

Though he was called many things, no one knows the true name of the man who called himself Christopher Columbus. Where he was born, in what year, who his parents may have been, and where he was raised -- none of these are known with certainty. Columbus himself only publicly discussed his birth twice -- and used a different year on each occasion. Never did he chronicle his early life, and those third-party accounts that exist radically conflict. No true portrait of him was ever made. The few that are displayed in galleries around the world were painted long after his death. Only one was created by someone who actually saw Columbus during his life, and that image is distinctly different from all of the others. Columbus always wrote in Castilian, not Italian. He was clearly an expert seaman, but how he became one remains a mystery. He wanted to sail west, across the great ocean, to find India and Asia. Why he came to the conclusion that such a route might exist and how he found his way is unknown, as the chart he utilized disappeared after his first voyage. The log book that is cited by nearly every historical account dealing with Columbus is not an original; that too disappeared after his first voyage. What is wrongly called The Journal of Christopher Columbus is a copy of a copy, and whether it is complete or accurate is not known. 

Christopher Columbus, a man who changed the course of human history, is an enigma. Little to nothing is known about him. What is known, is suspect. Which seems to be the way Columbus himself wanted it. Was there a reason he cloaked himself in such contradictions? Some believe that there was indeed a purpose to his plan, and that intriguing possibility (which is becoming more and more plausible) led me to write The Columbus Affair.

Gazala:    What are books for?

Berry:    To enjoy, savor, and cherish.

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?

Berry: I actually adhere to 11 rules, which I taught myself during the 12 years that it took me to go from novice to published writer. I try to always keep those rules in mind.

Gazala:    The frenzied tribal drums suddenly outside my house tonight are booming too loudly to delay investigating them any longer. Ask yourself a question, and answer it.

Berry: Q: How can your readers learn more about Steve Berry and his books? A: Go to The website has it all.

It's always rewarding to discover what you think you know, you don't know -- especially within the pages of an absorbing thriller. Read Berry's new book, and start thinking very differently about Christopher Columbus. You can get your copy of The Columbus Affair from Amazon by clicking here.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

I, Robot Author

Technological developments are radically restructuring the way books are produced, marketed, sold, delivered and read. Borders stores are gone, and many analysts say Barnes & Noble's once mighty chain is circling the drain, both undone by online book retailers. Worldwide sales of e-readers like the Kindle and Nook continue to gain momentum with no signs of an imminent slowdown. The percentage of books bought via download to be enjoyed on machines, rather than read on paper pages, increases monthly.

In these turbulent times, you might be thinking the only element of the book industry that's immune to replacement in this incessant technological onslaught is the author.

The trouble with that is, you might be thinking wrong.

I'm not referring to something like the "infinite monkey theorem," which states that given enough time, an immortal monkey typing random keys will almost surely produce Shakespeare's complete works. Mathematically speaking, the chances our immortal monkey can achieve this result in an amount of time even 100,000 orders longer than the age of our universe is a number barely removed from zero. For a taste of an example in this regard, you need only revisit the work conducted in 2003 by a British team at the University of Plymouth. The team installed a computer keyboard in a primate enclosure at the Paignton Zoo in Devon. After an entire month, the enclosure's six crested black macaques managed to write only five pages, which overwhelmingly featured the letter S. The monkey authors apparently took far more delight in beating their keyboard with a rock, when they weren't urinating and defecating on it, than in replicating Hamlet.

Alas, poor Yorick!

No, this latest technological development isn't the computerized equivalent of immortal monkeys infinitely typing. It's not nearly so primitive as that. Instead, it's something happening right now, pioneered by companies headquartered in Illinois (Narrative Science) and North Carolina (Automated Insights). As a matter of fact, it's not unlikely you've already read somewhere a short piece of sports or financial reporting dashed off by computers meticulously programmed to write news stories like people do.

You scoff. I can hear you from here. You're thinking there's no way a computer could write even a simple news story that's virtually indistinguishable from one written by a human. No algorithm's that good, right? Fair enough. Below are two excerpts from recent sports stories. One's written by a person, the other by a machine at Narrative Science. Pick the one written by the machine.

A.    "Friona fell 10-8 to Boys Ranch in five innings on Monday at Friona despite racking up seven hits and eight runs. Friona was led by a flawless day at the dish by Hunter Sundre, who went 2-2 against Boys Ranch pitching. Sundre singled in the third inning and tripled in the fourth inning... Friona piled up the steals, swiping eight bags in all..."

B.    "Marshall squeaked out an additional run in the top of the fifth. As Langley approached the seventh inning, it looked as if the Saxons had the game well in control, but the Statesman rallied behind six hits to get within 7-6. With the bases loaded and two outs, Templin struck out the last batter (her ninth strikeout of the game) to secure the win for the Saxons..."

One of those two pieces was written by a man named Rich Sanders, for the Vienna Connection. The other was written by a robot.

Admit it. It's tricky picking which is which, isn't it?

This robotic authorial outsourcing is in its nascent stages. For at least the time being, it'll be a long while before any machine can be programmed to write something as sublime as James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, or as steamy as E.L. James' Fifty Shades of Grey. Not even the world's greatest programmers have come remotely close to figuring out the way to teach a computer to write authentically about how a cool summer breeze feels on sunburned skin on a white sand beach at dusk, or what throbs in a mother's heart when she sets her eyes on her newborn baby's toothless smile, or the chills that quiver down one's spine at the coming robopocalypse.


But in a recent article in Wired magazine, Kristian Hammond, Narrative Science's co-founder and Chief Technology Officer, boldly predicted that over 90% of all news stories will be written by computers in 15 years. He also predicted a computer will win a Pulitzer Prize in five years. Clearly, he's a businessman with an agenda. Just as clearly, he's no fool.

So if computers write the book, edit and format the book, market and distribute the book, and beam the book through wires and wavelengths to other machines to be sold and read, where will that leave us humans? Just as buyers and readers, I guess. That is, until the programmers figure out a way to make robots who'll purchase and read the book.

Can you hear the future of books? It's a robot choir, singing, "May the (electronic) circle be unbroken," in perfect harmony.

The answer is A.

"You gotta be pretty desperate to make it with a robot."
~~Homer Simpson~~