Sunday, August 26, 2007

Time Travel

Apropos of this post, I read this story a few days ago and have been thinking about time travel ever since. If I understand the article correctly (which, after several rereadings, I am pretty sure I do not), the theory is not dissimilar to what Superman was up to when he flew circularly, counter-orbitwise, around the earth to turn back time and undo both the earthquake and Lois Lane's demise. How funny if that turns out to be the key to time travel - way to forecast, DC Comics! But for my time-traveling money, the time travel hypothesized in the article has two serious drawbacks: its availability only to "distant future generations" and its inability to go further back in time than when it was created. That's all well and good for those distant future generations, but how does it help me visit ancient Egypt? And I'm not sure whether it's depressing or encouraging to imagine distant future generations thinking of the early 21st century as analogous in any way to the world we now consider ancient.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Mysteries of the Universe

I've been struck by a few puzzlements recently. To wit:

Why is it so important for drinkers to get non-drinkers to drink? From my uncomfortable, feeling-the-need-to-conform days in college to my jaunty professional life cocktail party pretense that a club soda with lime was actually a vodka and tonic to my current "No, thanks, I'm really not a drinker," I feel as if I've spent my life fending off the proselytizing benevolence of people who want me to share the joy they find in booze. Apparently, I lack the taste buds or enzymes or whatever it is that makes this stuff taste good to people. I can be talked into an occasional margarita or a celebratory glass of champagne, but most alcoholic beverages taste to me like what I imagine nail polish remover would taste like. I've been drunk precisely once and it's not an experience I care to replicate. (If I remember correctly, there was about an hour of wonderful, dizzy, barely conscious buzz, then several hours of actual unconsciousness, then headache and nausea.) And, hey, I can be fun sober.

How is it possible for readers to read and enjoy a book when their grasp of what actually happened in the book and who the characters are is so tenuous that...well, if their actual grip on things were equally shaky, they'd be perpetually surrounded by dropped objects. I know we all bring our own experiences to the table when we read and that the hallmark of a good book is the way it creates its world while leaving room for different readers to take different messages from it, to respond in their own way and get what they want and need from its plot and characters. Fair enough. But I continue to be amazed by people who miss key character descriptors and plot points, or who want to know who Julie is two paragraphs after Julie is introduced, or who never even noticed a theme you found overbearing. Makes me wonder if our entire experience of books - and, probably, everything else - is virtually all about what we bring to them and very little, if any, about their intrinsics.

And finally, why in double-deck blackjack is it so common for all the players at the table to get a poor hand while the dealer gets a great one? A few days ago, on the first hand of a new shuffle, every one of five players was dealt a 15 (four pictures and fives; one eight and seven) when the dealer got a 20 in the form of two tens. This wasn't even close to the first time I've seen this; it happens far more commonly than the laws of probability would seem to dictate. The next hand saw another pair of tens for the dealer and five more crappy player totals - including, unbelievably, another picture and five; there are only eight fives total in the two decks! I understand how the game operates in favor of the house, but that has everything to do with how you have to play and nothing to do with the likelihood that you'll be dealt two cards totaling 12-16. The dealer theoretically has the same odds of getting an unpleasant hand as the players, right? Hmm.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Wishful Thinking

Ever since I found myself (reluctantly) in the book marketing biz, I've been struck by what an unscientific leap of faith marketing is. I've always thought of marketing as a rather voodoo-ish discipline, one in which no one can show direct causality between efforts and results. The theory seems to be little more than "exposure is good." Where marketing books is concerned, the mantra inherent in every marketing, PR and distribution message is "Of course there are no guarantees." Some of the books that get reviewed in The New York Times go on to be bestsellers; others languish. True juggernauts like Harry Potter are rare, and it's unclear whether marketing activities can take any credit at all for that phenom. (It's rather wonderful, actually, that innate quality and readability seem to be at the root of Harry's success.) Only recognition by Oprah is a real magic bean and even those authors often have the disconcerting (I imagine) experience of watching the anointed title fly off bookshelves and then subsequent titles remain resolutely shelf-bound.

Basically, everyone hastens to tell publishers and authors that the book won't get anywhere unless people see it. This stands to reason, but the implicit corollary - that once people see it, they will buy it - is, it turns out, neither reasonable nor true. Not even when the exposure is highly positive and persuasive. I am amazed by how scattershot and unpredictable results are. They seem to defy logic and they make it very difficult to target and pursue sensible uses of marketing time and effort.

Further complicating matters is the seemingly infinite array of marketing middlemen. These erstwhile folks have come up with thousands of ways in which you can pay them to generate exposure for your product - no guarantees, of course, but it's all based on the premise that exposure is good. Take the following example:

Book Distributor: Let us exhibit your title at the XYZ Regional Booksellers Convention, which we'll gladly do for [insert price - usually between $100 and $650; i.e., not enough to scare you away, but not nominal].

Publisher/Author: That sounds interesting. What kind of results do you see from this kind of exhibition?

BD: There are no guarantees, of course, but lots of booksellers will see the book. It's great exposure.

P/A: Of course, but how do the exhibited books do in the weeks and months after the show?

BD: We can't measure those results. There's no way to know which exposure led to which sales.

P/A: Well, ok, but how do exhibited books do, say, in the six months following the show when compared to similar books in your catalog that aren't exhibited? Can you show any measurable benefit, even if you can't draw a straight line between exhibition and sales?

BD: We don't track those statistics.

P/A: (internally: So basically this is just a way for you to make $$) Aloud: So how do your customers typically do the cost-benefit analysis to determine if the benefits of exhibition justify the cost?

BD: If people don't see your title, they can't buy it. This is a standard book marketing tactic and it's what marketing budgets are for.
Exposure is good.

Marketing obviously has aspects and players that sometimes make it more of a racket than anything else, but even leaving that aside, the basic premise appears to be: If no one sees your book, no one will buy it, so, q.e.d., it must be good to put it in front of people. This adds up, logically speaking, to:
the absence of not green is green - a fallacy immediately apparent to everyone who's taken Logic 101. I'm as much a believer in "nothing ventured, nothing gained" as the next guy, but this marketing baloney is irritating me. I'm just supposed to make the leap of faith, I guess. But the only justification I'm getting for believing that if I put it out there, people will come is that if I don't put it out there, people won't come. Sorry, but that's just not doing it for me.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

An Unforeseen Consequence

Evidently, a lot of younger women entered the work world utterly bereft of the coping mechanisms that years of sexism at the high school, college and grad school levels built into their predecessors (including me). It's certainly great that it's evidently no longer weird for a girl to be smart, ambitious and career-focused in high school, college and grad school, but a disappointing side effect of that progress is the shock that young women feel when they hit the wall of institutional blindness to their differing approaches, needs and value propositions. Judging by the opt-out revolution and the questions I get whenever I give speeches, many younger women are not only ill-equipped to handle the sexism - or even the inhospitability - they encounter once they start working in traditional places of business. They are also astonished by it.

Sexism is alive and well. It's impossible to look at the number of women in top positions in any arena (business, law, government, academia, entertainment, the media, medicine) and conclude otherwise. For all sorts of reasons - some related to institutional inflexibility, some to narrow-minded biases, some, no doubt, to white male protectionism, some to women's own failure or unwillingness to understand how the games are played and won - the flood of women who enter all these arenas thins to a trickle at the management and decision-maker levels and then dries to a few drops at the top. It's very troubling to me to think that the progress we've made is itself helping to impede further progress.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007


I have been doing so much traveling and sightseeing lately that I barely have time to work on my various writing projects, keep up with email and keep my website fresh, let alone to blog. I've got plenty of words and images in my head, but somehow when my eyes are full, the need to write observationally takes a temporary back seat.

After Alaska (which, in case you're a new reader, was incredible -
click here for some posts about that), we spent a little time at home and then went to New Jersey to go boating with some friends. We enjoyed a weekend of beautiful weather (wasn't there supposed to be some sort of heat wave across the US??), and spent Sunday boating into New York Harbor. I think the last time I saw NYC from the water was over 10 years ago when we took the kids on the ferry to Liberty Island. I'd forgotten how peaceful Manhattan looks from the water. It's hard to believe there's so much striving and crowding and bustle when you see it glinting quietly in the sun, looking like a fairy tale version of itself. There's also that mirage effect - it looks rather as if the skyscrapers are floating just slightly above that little sliver of island and that if they actually rested on it, it would surely sink under the weight.

And to get within 200 yards of the Statue of Liberty as we did - well, call me a Midwestern rube, but I'm a sucker for that lovely lady. She's beautiful and inspirational and still a symbol of many good things about America. Amazingly, neither she nor the NY Harbor are chock-a-block with visible security either. The hole near Battery Park where the Twin Towers used to shoot up into the sky is, to anyone familiar with the old skyline, a poignant and compelling memorial, and the fact that the Harbor is still open and accessible seems also to say something beautiful about the American spirit.