Monday, December 7, 2020

Authors' dilemma: do we hide the truth to avoid embarrassing people?


If you think of New Haven and education, there's a good chance you'll think of Yale University, a superb educational institution and part of the Ivy League. New Haven's public schools, however, frequently did a terrible job educating students.

I was the victim of some terrible teachers in New Haven's schools. Some were merely ignorant or incompetent. Others were absolutely nuts, evil, even sadistic and physically abusive. (Some, however, were OK or even superb).

Back in sixth grade, way back in 1958, I suffered from Julia Quinn, a particularly horrid teacher. I complained to my parents but they insisted that I must respect her because of her position—no matter how evil, incompetent, lazy or deranged she was.



I promised myself that someday I would tell the world what my parents refused to listen to. It took me over 50 years, but I kept the promise with my bestselling memoir, Stories I'd Tell My Children (but maybe not until they're adults).

I can still visualize exactly where I was standing when I made the decision to write about Quinn. If I go to hell I’m going find Quinn and beat the crap out of her. But I may have to wait in line for my turn because so many others suffered because of her. If you think I didn’t like her, you’re underestimating my passion. I hated her guts. And I still do.

Some people, including my ultra-cautious wife, warned me to not use real names in the memoir. I saw no need to disguise or minimize evil. Here's some text from the book:




[above] When I was in high school, another teacher, with the silly rhyming name of Herman Cherman, repeated a silly rumor to the school's disciplinarian—assistant principal George Kennedy. Herman said that I had traveled to school on a winter day, sitting on the convertible top of my best friend Howie's Triumph.


Not only would it have been very cold up there and hard to keep my balance, but I would probably have broken the top and fallen in on Howie and caused us to crash.

The assistant principal believed Herman, and made a school-wide amplified announcement summoning Howie and me to the detention room.

Fortunately the school cop, Joe Manna, came to our defense. He told Kennedy, “These are good boys; they would never do anything like that.” In the one time he was ever nice to me in three years, Kennedy said, “I wish Cherman would mind his own damn business. I have enough real problems to deal with without him making up fake problems.”

Recently in a Facebook group that deals with New Haven, one of Cherman's kids asked if anyone remembered her father. I responded with the story of my unnecessary embarrassment caused by his lying. The daughter then attacked me, calling me disgusting, evil and a liar. She pointed out that Herman won awards for his teaching.

Her father may indeed have been a wonderful teacher and father—but he was not my teacher or father—and in his only dealing with me, was an evil, lying busybody who caused unnecessary pain to my best friend and me.

I will never know the motivation for his lie. I assume he was trying to win points from Kennedy.

The daughter publicly called me a liar. But her father was the liar; and she, unlike me, did not witness the incident.

I responded that I had no reason to make up the story and that as Shakespeare and others have pointed out, "
the sins of the father are to be laid upon the children."

She has good memories of her father. I have a bad memory of the same person. That's life. I have no reason to hide the truth to shield anyone.

Author's may not use bombs, guns or swords, but books and the Internet can be powerful weapons. Use them with care. 

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Thanks!

Friday, December 4, 2020

Marketing books vs. marketing non-books

My mother didn't really look like this.
Years ago, if my mother said she was “going marketing” I knew that she was going to the supermarket, and maybe also to the butcher, the fruit and veggie market, the appetizing store and hopefully even to Carvel for ice cream. She’d load the trunk of her car with the food and supplies the family would need for a few days.

To Mom, marketing was buying.

For authors, especially self-publishing authors, marketing is selling.

It’s not the specific transaction of handing or sending someone a book after they hand you cash or a credit card or place an order online. It’s really all of the steps that lead up to the transaction when a book is exchanged for money.

  • Every activity and occupation seems to have an organization. The American Marketing Association defines marketing as “the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.”
In plainer English, marketing is the process of making people aware of what you want to sell them, and convincing them to buy it.

Each product area—including fresh-caught fish, screwdrivers, nuclear reactors, driveway resurfacing, hair dying and books—has a traditional system for marketing. Alternative channels may sometimes evolve or be discovered, devised or imposed. It’s best to at least understand the system that’s in place before inventing a new one.

The first step in marketing, or in a marketing plan, is to identify your customers and your potential competitors. The more precisely you can define the customers, the easier it will be to reach them and the more efficient your marketing can probably be.
  • If you’re writing and publishing a dictionary, your potential market is all of the people in the world who can read the language you are publishing in, or are trying to learn it. The potential audience could be many millions, and your potential competitors may number in the hundreds.
  • If your book is about your not-so-famous mother, you probably have no competitors covering the same subject, and your potential audience may be eight people. Or two.
  • Most books fall somewhere in between. Books intended to help fisherman, amateur mechanics, guitar repairmen and corn growers probably have potential audiences in the tens or even hundreds of thousands—and dozens of competitors.
Unless you are writing in a very new field, you are likely to face competition from existing books as well as books that are in the pipeline. Try to write something that is better than the competition—or at least make it seem that way. Powerful marketing can make even ludicrous ideas seem legitimate.
  • It’s important to understand the difference between “push marketing” and “pull marketing.” Books of fiction and poetry and most memoirs use push marketing. You must “push” your books on readers who really don’t need to read what you wrote. It can take much more time and effort to push a book than to write it.
  • A non-fiction book about an important subject can be sold with much easier pull marketing. If there is an existing need for the information or advice you are offering, readers will search for it and “pull” the books from the printing presses, warehouses and stores.
In book publishing, your customers are not just the potential readers. You have to court, impress, seduce and convince other potential “partners.” Your partners include booksellers, as well as a wide range of influencers. Traditionally the primary influencers were book reviewers in printed newspapers and magazines. Today many newspapers no longer review books, and magazines are disappearing. In their place is a constantly growing group of online influencers on blogs, websites and social media such as Facebook. You have thousands of potential allies who can recommend your book—or condemn it. This blog both praises and slams books.

Book marketing has a lot in common with the marketing of other products, but it’s also very different.
  • Unlike food, books are not consumed and then replaced with identical items throughout the life of a customer.
  • Unlike clothing, books are not outgrown and replaced with a larger size.
  • Unlike tires or tools, books are not replaced because they’ve worn out.
  • Unlike handkerchiefs, people don’t buy a pack of a dozen identical books to save money.
  • Unlike cars, you probably won’t sell a book to each adult in the family.
  • Unlike cars or videogames, people seldom trade-in older books for the latest model.
  • Unlike televisions, people generally don’t return a book after trying it and finding they don’t like it.
  • Unlike frying pans or screwdrivers, people don’t buy the same type of book in different sizes.

(illustration from http://greenlotus.hubpages.com/hub/The-Real-Housewives-of-1955. Thanks.) 

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Authors can travel through time. It can be enlightening, entertaining and disturbing.

My career as a writer started in fourth grade at Davis Street School in New Haven, back when purple dinosaur Barney roamed the planet.

I did not write juvenile poems or stories like other kids. I was a young journalist. My friend Alan and I wrote articles about the other kids in our school, and his father's secretary typed them up and printed our "newspaper" on a mimeograph machine. We priced the paper at a nickel. I don't think we sold many, and may have published only two issues.

I have no copies of our short-lived news medium, and don't even remember its name. The name was probably lame and my writing probably would embarrass me today.

Later, I was a journalism major at Lehigh University and wrote for the student newspaper, the Brown and White (named for the school's horridly dull colors which only a coprophile could be enthusiastic about). I probably saved most of my "clips" from those days, but all but one of them—a major opus—disappeared years ago.

After college I wrote for lots of magazines and some newspapers. At first I saved everything that was published. After a while, seeing my byline in print was no big deal, so I stopped clipping and saving. At one time I had bound volumes of Rolling Stone which included my work. I think the huge books are in my attic, but I haven't seen them in decades. My decedents can decide what to do with them. Will the books be worth money?

I sometimes fantasize about time travel (and space travel, unassisted flight, X-ray vision and feet that don't hurt).
  • One recurring fantasy involves the adult-me encountering the child-me. Would adult-me warn the child-me not to make the stupid mistakes up ahead? Would the adult-me like the child-me? Would the child-me be afraid of the adult-me, or think he's an asshole


[above] I wrote a book about advising myself.

With current technology, time travel has to exist in the mind only.

But even without a time machine or a clipping file, there are ways for writers to go back to an earlier era and evaluate their youthful output. We can determine if indeed "the child is father to the man," or if adulthood strayed far from childhood and young adulthood.

The Lehigh student paper has been scanned back as far as 1894, and the issues are online and searchable.
 
Traditionally, newspapers have had "morgues," where back issues become yellow and moldy, and sometimes crumble. I know that the New York Times has digitized archives online, but I had no idea that the concept had reached college papers. I suppose that I shouldn't be surprised that Lehigh—a school known for educating engineers—would have a digital, online morgue.

I was somewhat apprehensive about reading what I had written in the mid-1960s. Would I recognize my writing as "my" writing? How badly was my work butchered by editors? Was I any good then? Was I an asshole?

In one of the Back to the Future movies, Marty McFly wonders if his future kids will think he's an asshole. I understand his fear.

Researching and writing my recent memoir stirred up some long-buried emotions and I was initially reluctant to type my name into the search window on the Lehigh website.

I could not resist for long. I typed in "Michael N. Marcus," and found my name listed as a "reporter" in a 1965-66 staff list. Strangely, I found no links for anything I had written.
  • I then typed my name without my middle initial, and my monitor revealed the good, the bad and the ugly.
Apparently I had not yet started using my middle initial in my byline (probably because I despised my middle name until later in my life, when I also realized that there are many other Michael Marcuses and I needed to make my name and byline distinctive).

I did not find all of the pieces I remember writing, and found some I did not remember.

Subjects ranged from mundane (a $50,000 allocation to improve campus safety that few read in 1966 and I did not read in the 21st century) to politics and reviews. I found a mildly critical review I wrote of a jazz concert, and a scathing review of a live electronic music concert performed by ME, that I might wish was not preserved for posterity.

After months of wandering through Antarctic blizzards, female Emperor Penguins return home and are able to identify their mates from among thousands of apparently identical males.

I'm amazed that my writing "voice" in 1965 is not even remotely recognizable to me as me.

If I did not see my byline, I could not have identified my words—and that was very, very weird. My word sequences were not even as distinct as the feathers on a damn penguin!
  • The 19-year-old Michael Marcus does not sound at all like the 74-year-old Michael N. Marcus. In 1965, I had not yet developed an identifiable style.
The young-me was a decent journalist, and his writing style is much more serious than the old-me. At least he doesn't seem like an asshole.

I'm sure there are people who think the old-me is an asshole. At age 74, I don't care.

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If your old words are online you can probably find them on the Interenet Wayback Machine website. 

(Barney pic may be from PBS. Photo of Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly is from Universal Pictures. Photo of penguins is from Southern California Public Radio.)