What Can Antiques Road Show Teach Traditional Publishing?

I was watching the Antiques Road Show last week.  I love that show as there are so many stories presented in association with the antiques being discussed.  This night there was a guy who had some beautiful, old ledger books.  He’d fished them out of a dumpster simply because they were leather-bound, very large, and very cool.   Their exteriors suggested they belonged in a medieval monastery. These ledgers were from a company that manufactured buggy parts and dated to the early 1900s.  The books were, what’s the word?  KEWL!

But as nice as they looked on the outside, it was the inside that held the true gems.  Inside were hand-written entries of sales and delivery numbers for the various parts produced by the company.  The hand-writing was crisp and clear.  John Hancock would have been proud.  Sadly, we’ve lost hand-writing as a well-practiced art form.

What was interesting about the entries is that as you flipped through the books you saw that the company had transitioned from making buggy-parts to making car parts.  As I watched this I wondered how much grumbling went on within that company over the introduction of cars and the demise of an industry in which they were so heavily invested.  I envisioned dart boards with Henry Ford’s face.  The bottom line, however, was that not only had the company transitioned from one set of products to another, this company was still in business, throwing out their old ledger books of a century ago.  The major book publishers should have been watching Antiques Road Show.

Why?  I’m glad you asked.

The book industry is in the middle of same sort of shift that the transportation industry experienced when cars replaced the horse and buggy.  It’s moving from a high-cost print-based product to a lower-cost eBook product.  On its face this should be easy for publishing companies as only the container for their product (i.e. – words) has changed.  In the process they can quickly eliminate many of their printing, distribution and returns costs from the red side of their ledgers.

The problem, however, is that the companies who should be leading this industry change, the big publishing companies, aren’t.  In fact, they’re more concerned with protecting their shrinking legacy industry than participating in the newer eBook industry in spite of now reporting that 20-25% of their revenues are coming from eBooks while also reporting large declines in paperback and hardcover sales.

It should be Random House and Macmillan competing to see who has the best eReader, not Barnes & Noble and Amazon.  But the large publishers are not only not in the eReader business yet, they are pricing their eBooks in ways that limit sales of their books to consumers who do own eReaders, iPads, iPhones, etc.

Harper-Collins should be inventing innovative ways for libraries to use and distribute eBooks.  Instead they have produced a limited lifespan model that is completely unworkable given the modern ways in which libraries interchange books with one another to serve the public.

And so the Internet debate lines have been drawn and we are constantly bombarded by indie vs traditional model blog posts.  eBook advocates call traditional publishers names, some becoming justified by the very actions traditional publishers, agents, etc. are taking in attempts to retain their jobs and their way of doing business.  Those on the traditional side of the debate are firing back, largely embarrassing themselves as they twist reality into a pretzel as they voice their denial that anything has changed.   Much of this denial, I believe, comes from the fact that the large publishers have never viewed readers as their customers and they’re having a hard time coming to grips with that.  They’ve always viewed bookstores as their customers.

In the end, however, readers are learning a whole new way to books, without the “big six” being involved.  Readers are learning how limited their choices have been, caused largely by the large publishers wanting to make more and more money from the sales of fewer and fewer book titles.  Readers are learning more about small publishers than ever before.  Independent authors are selling lots of books.

Authors are happy because they are more free to express themselves and because they’re making more money than ever before.  They’re able to make their older works available, works that were largely abandoned by the large publishers after a 60-90 day run in bookstores.  Readers are happy because the selection is great and generally prices are lower.

And while this is happening the buggy-makers haven’t figured out that they need to start making car parts.

My Ideal Idea Book – What’s Yours?

Most writers have some method for recording ideas, making location notes, or maybe even sketching out a scene.  What’s yours? Mine must be portable as I never know when a good idea will start rattling around in my head.  I go for walks and just think about my current project.  Scene ideas will pop into my head, a whole new story idea might come up, or maybe I’ll have a great dialog idea.  I’ve got to write it down.

For most, the tools are a notebook and ball-point pen, though I’m not alone in being particular about my writing utensils.  What makes me anguish a bit more than most over this idea is that in addition to being a writer, I’ve got a fountain pen fetish.  If I’m going to put ink to paper; it’s got to be done with a fountain pen.

Fountain pens generate special challenges.  Those of us afflicted refer to the perfect triad of paper, pen and ink as though it were some magic potion, and I suppose it is, as a great pen only writes well with the proper ink on the proper paper and finding this combination is much of the fun of writing with fountain pens.

I’ve tried many combinations and I’ve found the ideal combination for my needs.  The goal is actually more complicated than just finding pen, ink, and paper that work together as I’m a guy.  I have no purse.  Some might say I have no brain.  So in addition to the general need for pen/ink/paper compatibility, I need:

1) The pen needs to be cheap because I’m prone to losing them.

2) The notebook must be small enough to fit in my back pocket.

3) The ink needs to dry quickly as I need to be able to make notes and shove the notebook back in my pocket without smearing.

Here’s my solution.  All of this stuff, except for the Moleskine notebook, is available from my favorite fountain pen store, Goulet Pens.   Nicest people on the planet and they provide a fantastic online shopping experience.

Cheap Pen & Quick-Drying Ink

Platinum Preppy pens are simply the best bargain ever.  With a street price around four bucks, they provide a smooth-writing pen and a natural for a portable, cheap pen system.   If you lose one it’s not a burden to replace it.

Platinum cartridges have a small ball inside them that help to keep ink flow even when the pen hangs out in my pockets for long periods of time.  The problem is the ink, which isn’t bad, but I’m fussy about my ink.  Goulet Pens has a tutorial that talks about converting a Preppy to an eye-dropper pen (you fill the entire barrel with ink) and I’ve done that.  While I’ve never had one leak, I don’t like the idea of carrying them in my pants pocket and elimination of the cartridges also means elimination of the small ball in the cartridge.

But it’s easy enough to use a syringe to fill any cartridge and that’s the approach I use.  My ink of choice for portability is Noodler’s Bernanke Blue (also comes in black).  It flows well from Preppies and it dries almost as quickly as I can lay it down.

Small Notebook size

The critical dimension for my portable notebook is that it must fit in my back pocket.  Thus, Levis determines my notebook size.  I use a Moleskine notebook as it fits well.  I have tried a Rhodia Webnotebook as the paper is superior but it’s just enough larger that it’s uncomfortable to carry on my butt.  If that’s not a problem for you, I highly recommend this notebook.  So, for me, Moleskine it is and my ideas are captured and I get to enjoy writing with a fountain pen.  What do you use to record your thoughts?

 

 

 

 

Coexist by Julie Crane

Consider this writing task.  Write a young adult novel with a cast of young girls and the occasional hunky guy.  Have them live in a modern computer world, interacting with each other on Facebook.  Oh, and don’t forget to include an elf war.

How would you do that?  I’d give Julia Crane a call.  She’s got more experience with this than the rest of us and she does an amazing thing: she makes it believable.

Coexist starts with Keegan, an teenage elf and her family who are, not surprisingly, also elves.  Elves have their mates chosen for them and she’s thinking about him, whoever he is.  But elves coexist with normal humans, beings without the powers of elves.  And thus the story begins.

Crane weaves a tale of Keegan’s balancing act between living the life of a human teenager while hiding her elfen heritage, her destiny, and her brother’s destiny, which is to have a role in resolving the impending elven war between the light and dark elves.

I’d like to tell you more but that wouldn’t be fair, would it?  If you enjoy young adult fantasy, get this book.  Read it.  You won’t be disappointed.

I’m An Author – I Make Stuff Up

One of the great things about being a fiction author is that you get to make stuff up, or as Lawrence Block put it, “you get to lie for a living.”  We create worlds, or recreate existing worlds, sculpt characters and provide them situations.  We’re limited only by our imagination.

As authors we’re told to “write what you know” but I write mysteries without having murdered anyone, or even been near a murderer.  I doubt that those writing about knights fighting dragons have experienced their words either.  We make stuff up.

But occasionally this comes back to bite an author.  Sometimes readers believe that we “write what we know.”  And such was the case when my brother and his wife Kathie came to visit (see here for some coverage of that event).  They had both read Her Book of Shadows which made their visit particularly fun.  The setting for my mystery series is Quebec City so as we wandered the town, seeing the sights, I could point out the various scene locations of the book.

Then it happened.  We were walking along my river, the St. Charles River and the topic of cooking came up.  Kathie said, “I need to get your recipe for broccoli chicken.”  Because I’m old and have a hard time remembering my birthday, it took me a few beats to figure out what she was talking about.  Then the light went on.  She was referring to this passage from Her Book of Shadows.

 

From Chapter Seventeen: I chopped the broccoli into small bits, using only the tops of the flower heads. I threw them into a bowl, grated Parmesan into it, added bread crumbs, lemon juice and some olive oil, creating a broccoli paste. I poured myself a glass of wine and added some to my mixture, adding more bread crumbs to maintain the paste consistency.

I sliced into one side of each chicken breast and filled the slot with broccoli paste, closing up the slot and holding it together with a couple toothpicks. I basted the exteriors with a bit of olive oil, sprinkling them with tarragon and a bit of pepper and I set the oven at 350F.

My protagonist, Scott Riker is making dinner for his family and one of the minor themes of the book is that he’s a decent cook.  The problem here is that this “recipe” was a figment of my imagination.  It wasn’t following that advice to “write what you know.”  I was “making stuff up.”  And so I was a bit embarrassed to admit that I’d never made stuffed broccoli chicken, though I was inwardly thrilled that it had seemed so believable.

But I like Kathie a lot.  She likes broccoli and so do I.  So, here’s how to make Riker’s famous Broccoli-stuffed Chicken.  And while I never measure anything when I cook, I did so in this case to provide some quantities:

Ingredients

chicken breasts (3-4)

broccoli (1 cup of broccoli buds)
parmesan cheese (2 tablespoons)
bread crumbs (1 tablespoon)
lemon juice (1 tablespoon)
olive oil (enough to turn the rest into a loose paste)
* I also mixed bread crumbs, parmesan and tarragon for use in coating the exterior of the chicken

The Process

I mixed the broccoli paste in a small bowl.  It doesn’t become a tight paste because of the broccoli but this result can be spooned into chicken breasts that have had a pocket sliced into them.  I apologize that my kitchen isn’t set up for high-quality photography but here’s a photo of the paste to give you an idea of its consistency.

I spooned the paste into the pockets and  basted the chicken breasts with olive oil.  I sprinkled the bread crumb coating* on top.  The chicken was transferred to a lined baking sheet that I’d painted with olive oil so they wouldn’t stick.  This is how they looked as I  stuffed them into a 375F oven.

About 45-minutes later, this is what they looked like.  Within half an hour they had disappeared and my family was all smiles.

I admit that I do cook, so maybe when I’m making stuff up about Scott Riker cooking, I’m also “writing what I know.”

 

Beautiful Quebec And Family Visits

It’s been a week since I’ve posted but finally I have a good excuse.  All those other times I was just goofing off.  My brother and his lovely wife came to town.

This might not seem like much to those of you who actually get to see their families on a regular basis but for me, it was a special treat.  As much as I love Quebec City, it’s roughly 3000 miles from my “home”, which is (was?) in Arizona.  Most of my family still resides there and it’s been a very long time since I’ve seen my brother.  While I won’t waste your time with details of our visit, I thought I’d share a few of the snapshots I took as we wandered parts of Quebec City.

We started on the Plains of Abraham.  This is a very large park that used to be a farmer’s field, Mr. Abraham’s field to be precise.  But then the British climbed the cliffs, the French came out of the walled city.  They both brought guns.  Now, Mr. Abraham’s field commemorates the battle that saw the British take control of Quebec City.  Unless you’re a historian, all of the battles that preceded this 22 minute interaction, and the months of bombardment, are lost in the pages of history books.

What is not lost is the beauty of the place.  Not only are there rolling hills and tall trees, there is an extraordinary garden, called…wait for it…the Battlefield Park Garden. For reasons unknown to me, a statue of Jean d’Arc looks down upon it.  It’s a copper statue much like the Statue of Liberty so I’m guessing it was a gift from France at some point.  Ignorance am me.

From there we headed to Rue Cartier, a wonderful street filled with small shops and restaurants.  We were foraging.  The photo is of my brother, his wife and my daughter.  They’re smiling because the food is on its way and hopeful that this will be the last time I have them pose for a photo.

After lunch we visited the Citadel. Quebec City is, or was a very strategic location, the walled city sits on a point, high above the St. Lawrence and this is the place where the Gulf of St. Lawrence shrinks down into what is to become the St. Lawrence Seaway.  This access point is very narrow and so anyone with a pop-gun could defend it against invading ships, which is one of the reasons it was so hard for the British to invade in the first place.

But invade they did and when those rebels in the US started shooting at Red Coats and dumping tea in Boston Harbor, the British in Canada got worried.  When those same infidels tried to invade Canada, they were even more convinced.  They used a French fort design and constructed a great fort to defend against American invasion. 

This fort is now the home of a French-Canadian regiment, the 22nd, which has a long and illustrious history.  The fort has never been attacked, at least not by a military.  Annually, however, tourists invade to tour the place, see the museum displays and to buy pieces of wood, plastic and paper.  These “souvenirs” are smuggled from the country, to rot in closests around the world.  It’s really amazing but very good for the Quebec economy.  Last weekend, we were part of the invasion force.

No visit to Quebec is complete without enjoying the fabulous architecture.  The “castle” as most call it is actually the Chateau Frontenac, a huge luxury hotel built long ago.

It’s currently having the upper roof replaced and not wanting the view disrupted too badly, they wrapped the area with large canvases painted to resemble the hotel behind them.  From a distance, it was surprisingly effective.

We saw statues…lots of statues.  This one is of Sam Champlain.  While French folks were living in the Quebec City area long before he showed up, he was an organizer… a doer.  He is considered the founder of the city so he gets a big statue.

In front of the Chateau Frontenac is a long promenade that is absolutely delightful.  There are a number of reasons for this, not the least being that you can buy ice cream cones there.  I guess, though, that most people go there to look down on the St. Lawrence which is a couple hundred feet below.  It’s quite a sight.

This is a photo of my wife and I, in our go-to-market clothes.  You’d think we could get dressed up to show family around but we’re a casual lot here in Quebec.

I’m sad to say that while we went other places, I seemed to run out of motivation to take photos so there are no more.  I’ll try to take others before the snow flies.

Cheers — Larry