Entries from February 2010

How to design a book advertisement

My old friend John Kenney is a brilliant ad writer. He has created national campaigns that you would instantly recognize and Super Bowl spots, and traveled widely to research and shoot them. After twenty-plus years in advertising, he has a pretty good sense of what works and what doesn’t.

Last weekend John sent me an email that I’ve been thinking about ever since. He pointed out a two-page ad that appeared in last week’s Times Book Review for Henning Mankell’s new thriller, The Man from Beijing. The ad was unusual in that it consisted almost entirely of a long, closely printed excerpt from the opening chapter of the book, framed by an eye-catching red border. John’s comment (which he has oh-so-graciously allowed me to reprint here):

The really smart thing — rule 1 of a good ad — is that it shared the benefit of the product with me. A review doesn’t do that. I was able to read the words, get a feel for it, experience it.

This is the sort of thing that seems obvious once you hear it. Who has ever bought a book because of a cherry-picked snippet from a review? Or because of a blurb? (I once heard Robert Parker say, only half joking, that he would read a book or blurb it, but never both.) Even the graphics in an ad, while they may get you to stop skimming long enough to look at it, do not allow you to experience the book itself. Yet these are the staples of book advertising: reviews, blurbs, and pretty pictures.

Of course, there are budget and thus space constraints with print ads. Not every book will be supported by a two-page spread in the Times Book Review. Still, it is odd that publishers insist on building their ads out of things that mean so little to the target audience when, with a simple cut-and-paste, they could let the reader try out the product in a way that car makers, say, cannot.

Categories: Publishing    Tags: ·

There is no sleeping at the Boston Public Library

It is strictly forbidden to fall asleep at the Boston Public Library. I presume this policy is intended to keep the homeless from camping out here, but the homeless know the rules because, well, they camp out here, so it is not the homeless who are primarily affected. It is everyone else. Like me.

Unfortunately, conditions at the Boston Public Library are in all other ways sleep-optimal: quiet, low light, tens of thousands of dull old books. Just about the only way to ward off sleep under these circumstances is eating — but eating, alas, is likewise strictly forbidden at the Boston Public Library.

Security guards, with not much else to do, constantly patrol the library waking up anyone who drifts off. Ever vigilant, they troop past every fifteen minutes or so. Upon detecting a violation, they knock on the table where the offender has laid his head. Then comes a whisper: “No sleeping.” Sometimes even a finger wag.

The BPL sleep police have a thankless task, and it might be better for everyone if we simply changed the rule to “no more than 15 minutes per nap.” The bookkeeping would be unmanageable (how to track when each patron fell asleep? how long to allow between naps until a new 15 minutes is permitted?), but then libraries have always run largely on the honor system.

I will have to leave this matter to the trustees. The injustice of the Boston Public Library’s policy toward drowsy patrons is beyond my capacity at the moment, marooned as I am in the main reading room with a half-edited manuscript, brain-dead from reading the same pages over and over. And over. If I wait for the guard to pass, maybe I can sneak in a quick nap.

Categories: Boston    Tags:

Bill Gates on Energy

Is there a more demoralizing problem than global warming? Discussing it feels utterly hopeless. Climate skeptics are unmoveable despite the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence. Intelligent, well-meaning conservative friends of mine, people I like and respect, simply reject that the problem exists, let alone that we ought to fix it.

So I found this video of Bill Gates at TED heartening. Saddled as we are with a feckless government and a venomous, polarized political climate, it is good to know there are actual adults working on solutions. It is a hopeful note to take with you into the weekend.

Also, it occurs to me that Bill Gates has become, surprisingly, a model of how the obscenely wealthy ought to behave. Instead of using his wealth for self-indulgence or simply to go on making more and more money to no real purpose, as so many rich guys do, he has become a powerful, articulate force for good. Whatever you may think of his products or his business tactics at Microsoft (and I am no fan), Gates has become a sort of self-funded NGO, consciously emulating enlightened plutocrats past, Carnegie in particular. No longer the nerdy villain to Steve Jobs’s hip, black-turtlenecked rebel, Gates now takes on problems that seem too big even for governments: disease and poverty in Africa, global warming. Isn’t that a greater contribution than, say, the iPad?

Categories: Odds & Ends    Tags: · · · ·

Photographs of the Combat Zone

John Goodman, "The Schlitz Boys," 1978

I stopped by the new exhibit today at the Howard Yezerski Gallery on Harrison Avenue, “Boston Combat Zone: 1969-1978.” The gallery and the show both are small but well worth a visit, even on a raw, rainy day like today.

The exhibit gathers together black-and-white photographs by Roswell Angier, Jerry Berndt, and John Goodman. The photographs all show the people of the Combat Zone — hookers, strippers, pimps, lonelyhearts. Some are posed portraits, some are candid, journalistic shots. There are no empty compositions, no unpeopled streets. It is all real faces, real bodies. The subject is what in the Zone was called The Life.

I have been fascinated by the Combat Zone for a long time and always wanted to write about it. (I did write a short story about it once. More info here.) When my third book is finished — I hope to send the manuscript off to my publisher next week — I intend to pitch my editor on a novel set in the Combat Zone for book four. Maybe this exhibit is a good omen.

In the meantime, if you’re in the area I recommend the show. I have done quite a bit of research on life in the Combat Zone and I have never seen so many images, especially such evocative and beautiful ones, in one place.

Photo: John Goodman, “The Schlitz Boys,” 1978 (gelatin silver print, 16″ x 20″). Click image to view larger.

Categories: Boston · Photography    Tags: ·

The Tweeted Wisdom of Alain de Botton

Selections from the Twitter feed of Alain de Botton, a master of the tweet.

The attraction of the melancholic: sadness has created the room we’re going to take up in their lives.

We can only envy people towards whom we feel equal: it would not occur to anyone to envy the queen for her house. She is too odd to envy.

Definition of good parenting: that the child grow up with no wish to become a writer.

The book will be killed not directly by new technology but by the monkey mind it breeds. The issue is concentration, not royalties.

His tweets about the writing life are dead-on:

Good work only happens in the last 10 minutes of the day, when the fear of not accomplishing anything at last exceeds the fear of writing.

Writerly self-disgust: How rare to finish a day and think: I have worked hard and dutifully to the best of my ability. 1 day out of 20?

Stories of macho writers taking to drink has a tendency to cloud why they did so: because they were scared witless … of writing.

Writers are sucking in (unconsciously) the modern obsession with productivity — and forgetting about effectiveness.

Follow this man’s feed! (Hat tip: The Second Pass)

Categories: Writing    Tags: ·

Henry Miller’s Eleven Commandments


1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.
2. Start no more new books, add no more new material to “Black Spring.”
3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
4. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
5. When you can’t create you can work.
6. Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
7. Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
8. Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.
9. Discard the Program when you feel like it — but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

— Henry Miller, notebook, 1932-1933 (quoted in The Art & Craft of Novel Writing by Oakley Hall)

A Lesson from Dickens

In December 1839, Charles Dickens was 27 years old and already a superstar. He had written the Boz sketches, Oliver Twist, and Nicholas Nickleby. Each was a double sensation, scoring first as a serial — the day an installment of Nickleby was released, according to a contemporary account, the Strand “looked almost verdant with the numerous green [magazine] covers waving to and fro in the hands of the passengers along that busy thoroughfare” — then as a bound book. He was inexhaustible, creatively and physically. In addition to the long, serialized stories, he had written plays, musicals, and countless smaller pieces. He was a word fountain. All the while, he essentially maintained a parallel career as a magazine editor, generating much of the content himself.

The autumn of 1839 was particularly triumphant. In September he finished Nickleby, which had given him trouble. (“Thank God that I have lived to get through it happily,” he wrote in his diary.) It was published as a single volume on October 23. Six days later, his second daughter, Katherine, was born. Around this time, too, he was hired to edit a new magazine, Master Humphrey’s Clock, scheduled to launch the following spring essentially as a vehicle for his own writing and to capitalize on his fame. In early December he moved his family into a lavish thirteen-room home with a large garden opposite Regent’s Park. He leased the house for eleven years at a cost of £800 down plus a yearly rent of £160 — in today’s dollars, about $100,000 down, $19,000 a month.

By any measure, Dickens had made it. He was the hot young thing. The boy who had once been stripped of his middle-class expectations — his education abruptly canceled, shunted off at the age of twelve to work in a rat-infested blacking factory — was a star.

But on December 6, 1839, he did a strange thing: he registered as a law student at the Middle Temple. In today’s terms, he applied to law school.

When I first read this fact, in Michael Slater’s new and wonderful biography, Charles Dickens (the source for all the material in this post), I thought Dickens must have “applied to law school” to gather material for his writing. He had a long-standing interest in the law and had been a law clerk as a young man. And he often went on long rambles in and around London to find material, sometimes walking 20 or 25 miles, later spinning stories based on some little scene he witnessed. Surely he meant to do research, not actually become a lawyer.

But Slater writes that Dickens intended precisely that. “[A]ware as he was of the vagaries of literary fame, and haunted as he was by the spectre of [Sir Walter] Scott writing himself out in order to pay off his debts, Dickens was determined to contrive a safety net for himself.” Six years later, Dickens was still concerned enough to keep his name on the books as a law student at the Middle Temple, Slater writes, “so that he might one day be called to the Bar where ‘there are many little pickings to be got.'”

Dickens’s story is not quite Horatio Alger. Dickens was not a poor boy who made good. He was a respectable middle-class boy who lost everything then finally got it back — and then some. But the anxiety of seeing his father abruptly tumble out of the middle class all the way to debtor’s prison never really left him. The following winter of 1839-40, Dickens created the character of Jack Redburn for the new magazine, Master Humphrey’s Clock. He described Redburn as a boy “reared in the expectation of a fortune he has never inherited.” He was describing his own younger self.

Interestingly, Shakespeare’s childhood and subsequent success followed a similar arc. The parallel seems too close to be a coincidence: the two giants of English letters, neither especially well schooled but both forced to learn as young boys how quickly it can all be taken away.

But what was the lesson, exactly? What did the experience teach them? Empathy? Both were suddenly transformed from one sort of person to another, in society’s eyes. Or was it a lesson in the importance of hard work, never taking anything for granted? Maybe. Both men became ferociously hard workers and sharp businessmen. Or was it a lesson in how superficial social status really is, in the vanity of social pretensions? Both men did become expert critics of the worlds they lived in. Both saw their own times and the people around them with unusual clarity. Probably the tumble from respectability taught them all of these things.

Maybe for a writer it is not enough to want, to yearn. Maybe what you need is to have something — money, love, security — and lose it, then yearn to get it back. Maybe every great writer has his blacking factory.

Illustration: Detail from a portrait of Dickens at 27, made by his friend Daniel Maclise in 1839. The portrait now hangs at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Categories: Creativity · Writers    Tags: ·

The Perils of Advertising

Rummaging through my computer recently, I came across this ad for The Strangler. It ran in the New York Times and the Boston Globe on February 6, 2007, and in the weekly Boston Phoenix at the same time. There was a radio spot airing that week, as well, which was very fun to hear while riding in the car. Some other advertising, too.

An ad like this is every writer’s dream, of course, and I’d be a fool not to appreciate it. But there is a catch-22: you cannot sell books without publicizing them; but the more you spend on publicity, the more copies you have to sell to turn a profit for your publisher. When you go to sell your next book, the publisher will be looking with a gimlet eye at a balance sheet showing not just how many books you sold but whether you actually made any money. Obviously, advertising expenses count. From an accountant’s perspective, it is better to profit on 25,000 copies sold than to lose on 250,000.

Obviously this sort of old-school dead-tree advertising is going to become quite rare in the grim new low-margin world of publishing. No doubt it already has. It just does not make sense to pay top dollar to broadcast your message to millions of readers in the Times when only a tiny fraction of that audience is your actual target. In theory, at least, the web promises pinpoint accuracy in aiming your ad, and costs far less. The shotgun approach makes sense for mass consumer products like soap and beer. For books, you’re probably better off with a rifle. Or, budgets being what they are, a pea shooter. Most readers, I suspect, are more influenced by word-of-mouth from a trusted friend than by ads like this one, anyway.

Categories: My Books · Publishing    Tags: · ·

Last Words

Yesterday I finished the last scene of the new book, a scene I had been wrestling with for days. Endings are a tricky business. Obviously the last page of a novel should move the reader somehow, which is why writers tend to swing for the fences. This is where the prose often puffs itself up — “So we beat on, boats against the current,” that sort of thing.

There is an old joke that no man should wear a Greek fisherman’s cap unless he is both (a) Greek and (b) a fisherman. Well, stirring finales like “So we beat on…” ought to come with a similar warning to writers: Don’t try this unless (a) you are F. Scott Fitzgerald and (b) you have just written The Great Gatsby. By the end of an effective novel, the drama of the story should be moving enough, anyway, without the need for grandiose writing. Less is more.

But there is danger at this end of the spectrum, too. I find a lot of novels end too abruptly to be satisfying. They show too much restraint. They simply stop. To me, as a reader, I want all my time and emotional investment in the characters to be paid off somehow. Less is more — but only to a point. Then less becomes too little.

So it is a difficult balance, and I finally managed to get something down that I could live with. Now I go back to fill in a few holes. There are a couple of short scenes to write from scratch plus one to rewrite, then I will have a few weeks to edit and polish before I send it all to my editor, Kate Miciak, at Random House. Several more rounds of edits will follow, until we all run out of time or patience, whichever comes first. But the heaviest lifting is done, and that is a huge relief.

Categories: My Books · Writing    Tags: · ·

Stock and Flow

From a blog called Snarkmarket, sorting the 2010 web using economic principles:

There are two kinds of quan­ti­ties in the world. Stock is a sta­tic value: money in the bank, or trees in the for­est. Flow is a rate of change: fif­teen dol­lars an hour, or three-thousand tooth­picks a day. Easy. …

But I actu­ally think stock and flow is the mas­ter metaphor for media today. Here’s what I mean:

Flow is the feed. It’s the posts and the tweets. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that remind peo­ple that you exist.

Stock is the durable stuff. It’s the con­tent you pro­duce that’s as inter­est­ing in two months (or two years) as it is today. It’s what peo­ple dis­cover via search. It’s what spreads slowly but surely, build­ing fans over time.

… And the real magic trick in 2010 is to put them both together. To keep the ball bounc­ing with your flow — to maintain that open chan­nel of communication — while you work on some kick-ass stock in the back­ground.

A very useful concept. Read the whole thing here. (via)

Categories: Internet · Productivity    Tags:

The Street Photography of Jules Aarons

Wrestling, West End, Boston

There is a new exhibition at the Boston Public Library of the street photographs of Jules Aarons. The exhibition is located in the Wiggin Gallery in the old McKim Building, just one flight up from the main reading room where where I have been writing every day. The gallery is secluded, and you won’t find much signage or advertising for the exhibit, even in the library itself. The guardians of the BPL apparently have decided to keep this one a secret. That is a shame but not exactly a surprise. Aarons’s work has been underappreciated for a long time now. He is one of the best photographers you’ve never heard of.

I wandered up to the Wiggin Gallery this morning before work, happy to postpone writing a difficult scene that I have been struggling to complete. In the gallery, two women were strolling past the pictures and chatting. They soon wandered off, and I had the entire exhibition to myself. The room was quiet, not the usual library sort of quiet — footsteps, sniffles, sneezes, whispers — but dead quiet. It was an odd place to see these pictures, which are so alive you half expect the people in them to turn to you and speak. (“Get back to work,” they might tell me.)

It is a mystery to me why Aarons’s photographs are not better known. I am not enough of a connoisseur to comment on the technical proficiency of the pictures, but to me they seem expertly composed and printed. Certainly they are very beautiful. Aarons’s street photography has been compared to the work of Lisette Model, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Helen Levitt, and Aaron Siskind, among others. Again, I am not qualified to comment on the comparisons. But I know what I see in these pictures and why I love them: they are alive, authentic, intimate, humane.

Most of the photos in the exhibition date from about 1947-1960, some later. They show ordinary working-class people, often in the West and North Ends of Boston, doing nothing more than chatting on street corners or flirting or lighting a cigarette. Fifty or sixty years later, of course, these people are all gone or transformed by age, but they are utterly alive and present in Aarons’s pictures. To come face to face with them is like traveling back in time. It makes the hair on your neck stand up.

I first discovered Aarons’s work when I was researching The Strangler. His images were always in my head when I closed my eyes and imagined the city during the Strangler period. I even considered approaching him to license one of his images for the book jacket, he so perfectly catches the period feel I was looking for.


Aarons, who died recently at age 87, was never a professional artist. In fact, he was a renowned physicist, an expert in an arcane study that has something to do with radio waves in the atmosphere. Photography was a sort of second career for him. One wonders how a scientific mind could create pictures so soulful.

I suspect that, upon moving to Boston in 1947, Aarons found in the crowded streets of the West and North Ends a subject that reminded him of the Bronx neighborhood where he grew up in the 1920s and ’30s. He was at home in city streets. He seems to have enjoyed the bustle of urban life. His pictures are full of kids playing on sidewalks and women gossiping on tenement stoops and young men leaning on parked cars. I may be biased, but to me he seems especially at home in the streets of this city. His pictures of other places — Aarons traveled and photographed widely — do not have the same vitality and dynamism as the early Boston pictures. His images of Paris and, later, Peru are more abstract, more composed, more consciously artistic. I do not mean that as a criticism. An artist has a right to evolve, to work in a different, cooler style. But I do love the early, raw Boston pictures on display at the BPL.

Aarons’s method was unobtrusive. He used a boxy twin-lens Rolleiflex held at the waist, which gave him an unexpected advantage.

The waist level position allowed me to point my body in one direction and the camera in another. It was important to me not to intrude on the scenes which ranged from card playing in the streets to adults talking to one another.

The effect is like spying on real people, unposed, unself-conscious, unaware of our gaze. It is like visiting a lost Boston — precisely the fantasy I indulged in The Strangler. To see that city here, reanimated in Aarons’s photographs, is an electric experience.

Quote is from Street Portraits 1946-1976: The Photographs of Jules Aarons, Kim Sichel, ed. (Stinehour Press, 2002), p. 10.

Photos: Untitled (West End, Boston), 1947-53 (top). Lounging, North End, 1950s (bottom).

For more info about the exhibition at the Boston Public Library, look here. To see more photos by Jules Aarons, look here and here. There is also a Facebook page dedicated to Aarons here.